One recent morning in Gardena, Pat Croce found himself mediating a dispute in the Gonzales household.
Oscar, the family patriarch, has been bickering for years with his three grown stepsons, and wife Paula feels caught in the middle. Finally, with TV cameras rolling, Oscar breaks down. "I want to change," he says between sobs, but "I don't know how."
Croce responds reassuringly, urging the family members to talk honestly and learn to compromise. "A real man can change," he tells Oscar. "It takes courage."
These days, Croce is enduring a courage test of his own. A former coach and sports-medicine entrepreneur, he's best known for his widely praised turnaround of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team, where he served as president from 1996-2001. Now he's plunging into the brutal and flop-prone world of syndicated TV, as the host of the self-help series "Pat Croce: Moving In," from Sony Pictures Television. The show premieres Sept. 13, with original episodes at 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. weekdays in Los Angeles on KCOP-TV Channel 13.
"Moving In" experiments with a new format in daytime TV, which since the days of Phil Donahue has generally stuck with the traditional host-and-studio-audience setup. The conceit behind Croce's show is to have him show up at the doorstep of ordinary families (invited by prior arrangement, of course) and give members a crash course in problem solving.
"If your best friend could help you, wouldn't you tell them anything that really bothered you?" Croce asks over a Subway chicken club sandwich during a production break in his trailer. "Well, that's me. I'm their best friend for a day."
Viewers of daytime TV won't lack for such friendship this fall. Self-help gurus are all the rage in daytime TV now, thanks to the syndicated smash "Dr. Phil," which debuted in September 2002 and now pulls in nearly 7 million daily viewers. In addition to Sony's "Moving In," other new series on tap include Warner Bros.' "The Larry Elder Show," in which the popular radio host offers tips for in-studio guests, and NBC's "Home Delivery," in which a quartet of experts roams the U.S. helping people change their lives.
It's part of the continuing evolution of syndicated TV.
"We went through a period where we were confrontational," says Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for Katz Television Group in New York, which advises local stations on programming issues. "There was great success for shows like 'Jerry Springer.' But with the continuing success of Oprah (Winfrey) and Dr. Phil and Ellen (DeGeneres) and Regis (Philbin), the audience has pretty much said they want positive shows and things that are affirming."
Sony executives make no bones about the inspiration for "Moving In."
"We looked at Pat as a compelling personality, but (it's) a format rooted in 'Dr. Phil,' " says John Weiser, the studio's executive vice president of sales. "The highest rated day in Dr. Phil's show every week is his All-American Family Day" (in which the host helps clans sort through seemingly intractable problems in their homes).
"We took that format and are making a Monday-through-Friday half-hour (show) of it."
Whether that approach can turn "Moving In" into a hit remains to be seen. Sony says the show will be available in more than 98% of U.S. TV homes -- an impressive figure for any show that's just launching. But the most host-driven daily syndicated series disappear within their first two seasons (such shows usually survive the first year only because syndicators insist on two-year deals upfront). That includes recent entries hosted by Roseanne, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Howie Mandel, Wayne Brady, Sharon Osbourne and Ryan Seacrest.
Croce also faces some unique obstacles. Unlike Dr. Phil -- who appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" numerous times before getting his own series -- Croce is far from a household name. The unusual format also poses logistical challenges, since Croce will bounce from house to house every day rather than working from the safe confines of a studio.
Perhaps most important, Jane Pauley and Tony Danza are also rolling out new talk shows this fall, with backing from station groups controlled by NBC (Pauley) and ABC (Danza). Because Sony doesn't control its own TV stations, it finds itself at a distinct disadvantage in selling and promoting new series.
"There are very few distributors not aligned with a network, and Sony will have a harder time pushing Pat," predicts a rival executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He's going up against these names that will automatically have tune-in value. Pat is big in Philadelphia, but he's handicapped everywhere else."
But if there's anything the ever-positive Croce loves, it's a challenge.