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TV Talk Shows Duke It Out Over Ratings : Television: Winfrey is still No. 1, but Ricki Lake leapfrogs over a host of longtime favorites to take the No. 2 spot.


NEW YORK — It's not quite as scintillating as "I slept with your man--please forgive me," a recent topic on "The Ricki Lake Show." But it is an attention grabber in the world of TV syndication: Facing a glut of competitors on the one hand and the teens-talk-trash-and-love-it appeal of Lake's series on the other, Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jessy Raphael, Phil Donahue and Geraldo Rivera are experiencing a decline in the ratings of their daytime talk shows.

Winfrey's series, daytime's long-reigning No. 1 talk fest, is still way ahead of the pack, with an average rating of 8.5 this fall. But that's a decline of 13% from the same period a year ago, through Oct. 23.

Raphael, meanwhile, is down 20%, to a 4 rating; Donahue, at 3.4, is off 29%, and Rivera, with a 3.1, is 18% lower than a year ago. (Each Nielsen rating point represents 954,000 households.)

Lake, in her second season, has leapfrogged over the competition, more than doubling her rating (from a 2 to a 4.9) to become the No. 2-rated talk show.

Spokesmen for the Donahue and Raphael programs cited the proliferation of talk shows as the reason for their loss of audience.

"When I started out as the executive producer on Sally's show, there were a handful of shows with large ratings," said Burt Dubrow, an executive with Multimedia Entertainment. "Today, you have many more shows and there is more competition among them."

In Winfrey's case, however, some station managers say there may be another factor: Her decision this fall to move in what she described as a more positive direction, forgoing shows about victims and people with abnormal relationships in favor of topics such as fulfilling your dreams.

"It's a real double-edged sword," said John Garwood, general manager of WPLG-TV in Miami, which, like many ABC affiliates, uses "The Oprah Winfrey Show" as a powerful lead-in for local news and ABC's "World News Tonight."

"Oprah is a great creative force in talk shows, and she may be doing exactly the right thing to differentiate her show for the future," he said. "But we've been spoiled by her ratings. I was amazed that a show she did recently on practical jokes got a strong rating. But some of the topics--such as past lives and one-on-one conversations with authors--didn't perform nearly as well. Any time you change your show, you lose viewers. The question is whether what she is trying to do will succeed long-term."

What troubles Garwood and other stations is that, in most cases, they are locked into multiyear contracts for "Oprah Winfrey."

"Everyone's still making a ton of money on Oprah," said one station manager, "but stations have paid a premium for the show, and they could be sitting here with expensive long-term licenses if her ratings were to drop precipitously."

While some other talk shows are holding up--Maury Povich's ratings have climbed 5% above last season, for example, and "The Gordon Elliot Show" has gotten off to a decent start (unlike the Marilu Henner and Suzanne Somers efforts)--it is Lake's show that has riveted the industry's attention.

Lake, the former star of the cult movie "Hairspray," is cutting into the younger demographics of Winfrey and other talk shows while also attracting some people who hadn't been talk-show fans. She is appealing to young viewers with an in-your-face format in which the studio audience "votes" on guests and young people sometimes confront parental figures. Recent topics have included younger women who date older men, romance with prison inmates and cosmetics make-overs.

"Before Ricki Lake, the conventional wisdom was that younger viewers weren't big viewers of daytime talk shows," said Jack Fentress, vice president of Petry Television, a firm that sells national advertising time on local TV stations.

That will change next season. Syndicators are trying to drum up interest in talk shows hosted by Carnie Wilson of the Wilson Philips music group; Melissa Rivers, daughter of Joan Rivers, and ex-"Cosby Show" kid Tempest Bledsoe.

Fentress cautioned against overstating Winfrey's ratings drop.

"She's still getting twice the rating of her nearest competitor, stations are making a ton of money with her show, and it looks like her ratings are coming up a bit during the November sweeps," he said. "And you can't underestimate the impact of the proliferation of talk shows on many of the show's ratings. There are 22 daytime talk shows on the air--many more than in the past. Everybody and his brother has a talk show, and the pie is being cut up into smaller pieces."

Winfrey and her producers believe her current strategy will work.

"We're behind what she's doing," said Moira Farrell, the vice president in charge of marketing for King World, which distributes the show. "Our focus groups are telling us that viewers like what she's doing."

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