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TV to Look for More 'Rosies' in the Talk-Show Garden

Television: The new show's success combines with a year of intense controversy over content to signal a move to softer daytime programming, executives say.

July 10, 1996|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imitation "Rosies"--copycat chatfests hoping to capitalize on the success of Rosie O'Donnell's new talk show--will be blooming soon on the daytime talk circuit, a panel of television executives and talk-show hosts said Tuesday.

The failure of last season's freshman crop of youth-oriented talk shows and opposition from legislators and advertisers toward "trash talk" and salacious topics has led syndicators to move toward the softer entertainment-oriented direction of O'Donnell, panelists told a gathering of television writers and critics during the syndication portion of the semi-annual Television Critics Assn. conference in Pasadena.

Although two of the panelists--talk-show hosts Gordon Elliott and Rolonda Watts--said they will continue with shows that are topical, inoffensive and entertaining, others on the panel agreed that O'Donnell has provided a fresh alternative in the daytime arena.

"Rosie will revitalize interest in the softer format," said Jim Paratore, president of Telepictures Productions, which produces "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." Executives at Paramount Domestic Television said they had been looking at a softer format of talk show even before O'Donnell's approach started clicking with viewers last month.

But despite this change of direction and the intense criticism that resulted in the most controversial year ever for talk shows, the panel declared the genre to be alive, well and thriving as a viable part of the television landscape.

"Talk shows have done a lot of good and have brought a lot of subjects to the forefront" that previously had been overlooked, Paratore said. "The yelling that has taken place on them during the past few years" has not been indicative of the general level of discussion that the genre has maintained in years gone by, he said.

Watts added that she has been able to tackle such once-taboo subjects as incest and teenage sexual habits in a non-exploitive manner.

Those benefits, panelists said, were ignored by former education secretary and current Empower America President William Bennett, who last year launched an aggressive attack against several hosts, including Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer and Geraldo Rivera.

Bennett and his supporters, including Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), claimed that too many of the daytime talkfests focused on tasteless and salacious subject matter that was inappropriate for children and urged viewers and advertisers to stop supporting the shows unless they changed direction.

At Tuesday's session, Joel Berman, president of distribution for Paramount Domestic Television, which produces the "Maury Povich" and "Montel Williams" shows, called Bennett's campaign "a complete pain in the ass" that had a chilling effect on advertisers.

Elliott, considered to be one of the more whimsical hosts, said that what Bennett claimed "had a lot of merit" but agreed with other panelists that the criticisms came after the talk-show industry was already changing.

Much of that change came as a result of the disastrous fortunes encountered last season by such newcomers as Tempestt Bledsoe, Gabrielle Carteris, Carnie Wilson and Charles Perez, who sought to capture the young ethnic audience that had been a large factor in the success of "The Ricki Lake Show."

Panelists said those hosts failed largely because they went after one audience. In addition, advertisers and station managers voiced criticism of the lurid, sensational nature of the shows.

Berman said viewers, station managers and advertisers have effectively weeded out salacious talk shows and have combined to create a system that is much more responsible.

"That system is now working very well," he said, "and we have talk shows that cover the gamut from 'Jerry Springer' to 'Regis & Kathie Lee.' There's a good dynamic between the advertisers, stations and viewers."

Paratore and others warned that syndicators seeking to reap the same rewards as O'Donnell may be doomed if they seek only to copy her program rather than to put a unique spin on the format.

"All these shows may start dividing up the audience again," said Michael Gelman, executive producer of "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee."

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