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Quest for TV magic

Syndicators constantly search for new shows that audiences will watch, a constant mix and match of hosts and formats. How is it going?

November 16, 2003|Robert Strauss | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Alexandra Wentworth rolls her eyes upward and smiles somewhat uncomfortably. Mario Cantone, who plays the gay stylist Anthony Marentino on HBO's "Sex and the City," has just gone over the top as a guest on her new syndicated show. Wentworth is supposed to play the blabbermouth role as a co-host on "Living It Up! With Ali & Jack," but Cantone is on a riff about "The Vagina Monologues" and how he hates "Cats" and "Court TV" and Shakespeare, and Wentworth can't stop the soliloquy or even slow him down.

Or maybe she doesn't want to. It's tough being the new kid on the morning block in syndicated television and, perhaps, whatever stands out, even if it's a wildly rambling cable-show third banana, may be just good enough.

"Living It Up!" has a decent pedigree. It is distributed by King World, whose "Oprah" and "Dr. Phil" -- not to mention the forever-running "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune" -- have made billions in profits for the company. But there is always the prospect of the next billion on the high-definition horizon.

"Living It Up!" also has a leg up on other syndicated programs since Viacom stations (Viacom owns King World) have generally given it a good position on their schedules, mostly displacing homemaking-diva-turned-stock-manipulation-suspect Martha Stewart. It airs locally weekdays at 9 a.m. on KCBS Channel 2. But no one, not even King World, gets a free pass. Wentworth and co-host Jack Ford have not yet excited audiences -- in early November ratings for "Living It Up!" were down 30% from what was on last year in its time periods in the 55 top markets. And the ghosts of Magic Johnson and Howie Mandel and Roseanne and Caroline Rhea and any of the other 50 or so failures in first-run daytime syndication over the past decade hang over them.

"It is our responsibility to bring to the marketplace new and fresh ideas," said Mike Stornello, senior vice president of development for King World. "You spend the better part of two years in development, at the end tweaking and changing what you have put together. You try to minimize risk when you create the show, but what you want to do is win."

Winning can be really winning big. Oprah Winfrey's show, in its good years, is said to bring in $350 million to $400 million in revenue. The usual syndicated show takes about $25 million to produce. So profits can be enormous.

"It seems easy, but it is really hard to host one of these shows and be consistent," said Jim Paratore, the head of Warner Bros. Telepictures, which produced Rosie O'Donnell's show and this fall launched those hosted by Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Osbourne, the two most successful new syndicated shows of the season. "So there is a lot of failure. Even Rosie, who was ultimately successful, said that if she knew how hard it was going to be, she never would have done it. She came in confident it would be easy, and I guess a lot of people do, then it can get to be a grind if you don't watch it."

Even Oprah is showing signs of slippage. Ratings on her show have dipped more than 20% in the last five years. Ratings for syndicated daytime shows stayed fairly stable through the 1980s and 1990s, even as prime-time ratings on the networks slid perceptibly downward. But in the last five years or so, ratings for even the traditional winners have slipped. The reason may well be that cable operators have finally found the niches to appeal to the young and middle-aged women who traditionally watch syndicated first-run fare. The House and Garden Network, the multiple Discovery Channels, Lifetime, Oxygen, Style and the like have each gained some following and people are hungering less for the next "Living It Up!" and Sharon Osbourne.

"Sometimes it seems like darts on a board," said Jerry Katzman, who now teaches industry relations at UCLA but was once the president of the William Morris Agency. "They have tried so many pop personalities who haven't worked and then someone comes out from left field who does work. Who was Montel Williams before he was on? Then there was Chevy Chase, a big star, a big coup to get him on. You would have thought he would go through the roof. Instead, he fell through it."

DeGeneres and Osbourne both have controversial pasts but put on slightly different versions of the traditional celeb-chat shows. DeGeneres tends to be the playful, kidding older-sister type, while Osbourne likes a little more raunch -- perhaps the sly girlfriend of the local garage-band star. Each, though, tends to let her guests smilingly gush about their latest projects, just like the Mervs and Rosies of yore.

"People apparently don't always need a new show, but then the combination of the right time slot, the right promotion, whatever, makes it work," Katzman said.

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