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The Return of Regis Philbin

Regis Philbin stood on the helicopter pad atop a 24-story hotel in Universal City, his arms outstretched above the expansive city view. Posing for a newspaper photographer, he screamed: “I’m back, Los Angeles! The king is back! I’ve come to save you from boredom! No more snoozing at 9 a.m.! The excitement is coming back!”

The second coming of Regis, or Outregis, as his partner Kathie Lee Gifford likes to call him, will probably not be heralded with the same messianic fervor as was last month’s arrival of hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky. After all, Philbin’s return to local television Monday morning for the first time since 1981--in the nationally syndicated “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee"--will take place on low-rated KHJ-TV Channel 9 in a time period (9-10 a.m.) that has been a virtual ratings washout for the independent station.

But Philbin was once the undisputed king of the local talk show scene--he hosted KABC-TV Channel 7’s perennially top-rated “A.M. Los Angeles” from 1975 to 1981. And armed with essentially the same show--a morning TV coffee klatch that has vanquished all competitors in New York since premiering there on WABC in 1983--he is ready to wage a full-blown assault on his old program.

KHJ has so much confidence in the audience appeal of the effervescent, quick-witted broadcaster who looks like a teddy bear but rants and raves like Daffy Duck that it expects the show to be beating “A.M. Los Angeles” by next February’s ratings sweeps. To help it along, the station has launched an expensive promotional campaign that includes on-air commercials, billboards, full-page newspaper ads and color ads in TV Guide that say, “Regis is back in the AM, Los Angeles. . . .”

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“We believe we will be No. 1 in that time period within six months, maybe less,” said Walt Baker, KHJ’s program director. “Regis is a very recognizable commodity in this marketplace. He had a very large following and I’m confident that that following will remember him and will tune in this show.”

Philbin’s own enthusiasm for knocking off “A.M. Los Angeles” is tempered considerably by the fact that in the last major ratings period in May, reruns of “Dallas” on Channel 9 ran last in the 9 a.m. competition with a 0.4 rating and 2% share of the audience, while “A.M. Los Angeles” dominated the time period with a 4.7 rating and 21% of the available viewers. In real numbers, nearly 196,000 more households were tuned to Channel 7 than to Channel 9 during that hour.

“The good thing is that when you start with nothing, you can only go up,” Philbin said. “The force of viewer habit, years and years of watching whatever morning show they are putting on over there, is awfully tough to break. So I’m not expecting any overnight miracles. But I do expect some kind of reaction here in Los Angeles, and I can’t help but feel some kind of rivalry with my old show.”

And then, with trademark gusto: “I taught those guys everything they know!”

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“Regis who?” deadpanned Steve Edwards, co-host of “A.M. Los Angeles” with Cristina Ferrare, when asked if he feels threatened by Philbin’s return.

“I’m confident we’ll continue to do very well with the same thing we’ve been doing,” Edwards went on. “I like Regis, and I’d like to see him do very well all over the country. But not so well here. There are always new threats. That’s what television is about, and it probably will help get the adrenaline up a bit. But we still plan to go out there and win.”

The outcome will probably come down to whom the audience likes best--Regis and Kathie Lee or Steve and Cristina. The shows’ formats are basically the same: The hosts come out and kibbitz with one another in front of a live studio audience and then segue into cooking segments, fashion and beauty shows, celebrity interviews and an occasional discussion of some serious social or psychological issue.

Even the current producer of “A.M. Los Angeles,” Steve Ober, is Philbin’s old producer from New York.

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What’s new, at least for local audiences, is Philbin and Gifford. Their opening gab session centers on Philbin’s sarcastic, semi-hysterical stories about what happened to him at home or out and about in the Big Apple the night before. Everyone and everything--including his wife, teen-age daughters, newspaper reporters and especially his perky blond co-host, best known as the wife of Frank Gifford and the singing spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines--are ripe for his brand of good-naturedly abrasive ribbing.

Philbin and Gifford come across as two people who air their dirty laundry in front of everybody but still like each other all the same. He jabs her about her hair, her clothes, her husband, and she fights back by pointing out that Philbin spits all over her whenever he goes into his loud-mouthed routine.

Edwards and Ferrare have their own version of this relationship in their opening segment, but it’s generally not as personal, silly or funny. Philbin, Edwards said, is a comedian first.

But while standup nightclub comedians frequently turn their private lives into public humor, some observers find it difficult to understand why so many people in Los Angeles--where he once did the same routine with Sarah Purcell and then Cyndy Garvey--and now in New York would tune in each morning to find out what fine mess Philbin got himself into the night before.

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“Everything on television these days is either written or over-rehearsed and there isn’t room for the smaller things in life that everybody goes through, like visits from your mother-in-law or the kids bringing home stray cats,” Philbin explained. “TV usually thinks those things are too insignificant to be interesting to anybody. But that’s all I’ve got. And it may sound a little hokey, but people relate to that, and they find those small little stories so appealing that they want to tune in the next day to find out what happened last night.”

And then, screaming at anyone who’ll sympathize with him, as he constantly does on TV: “This guy asks me why would anybody give a damn about what’s happening in your life? And you know something, he’s right! I don’t know how to answer that question.”

His spirited act has always worked impressively both here and in New York, but the last time Philbin took his show national, he flopped. After leaving KABC in 1981, Philbin hosted a similar daytime talk show for NBC, which also aired locally opposite “A.M. Los Angeles,” then hosted by Paul Moyer and Tawny Little. It was canceled four months later.

This time, Philbin expects to do better, mainly because the same show he’s been hosting every morning in New York will, without any alterations, simply be sent up on the satellite to stations all over the country.

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“Everything is already tried and tested and in place,” Philbin said. “We don’t have to develop a new format or attitude or build a new set or find a new co-host. And what do I have to lose? Even if it bombs nationally, we’ll still be a big hit in New York.”


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