Quest for TV magic

Special to The Times

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.

While "Living It Up!" and the DeGeneres and Osbourne shows premiered pretty much nationwide, sometimes syndicators decide to start small, in a selected few markets, and work up on word of mouth. Twentieth Television is doing that this year with its new shows, "Ambush Makeover" and "Classmates," which air in 26 and 21 markets, respectively.

"If you open in selected markets, you stay somewhat under the radar screen," said Robb Dalton, president of program development at Twentieth Television. "The idea is let's don't spend X millions of dollars and hope people will like it. Let's get some feedback and see what we can fix before we roll it out completely."

Dalton said Twentieth has done a few subtle changes on "Ambush Makeover," where a crew of stylists grabs a willing participant and makes them over in an hour, and "Classmates," where former school chums are reunited, and have been able to sell more stations on carrying the shows in the coming months.

"It's really because these are two kinds of spinoffs from the usual genres that we had to take some time," said Bob Cook, chief operating officer of Twentieth Television. "I would still say you have your basic court, game and talk kind of shows that continue to work.

"But the big difference right now is that there are a lot of off-network sitcoms -- 'Seinfeld' and 'Everybody Loves Raymond' and the like -- that have displaced a lot of these time periods," Cook said. "So one of the things we have done is tried to look at different kinds of shows, something that is out of the box. That is our niche."

For next year, for instance, Twentieth has been reported to be trying to reestablish "American Bandstand," though neither Dalton nor Cook would confirm that. But for the most part, syndicators are happy to stay with the entertainment and talk-show styles.

"In terms of development, what can I say, we all are looking for something that works, and what works usually is a personality and talk," said Linda Finnell, senior vice president of programming at NBC Enterprises, which is developing a talk show that will appear next fall for former NBC newswoman Jane Pauley.

"It helps to have a great personality -- Dr. Phil and Oprah fit that bill," Finnell said. "We believe that Jane Pauley is another one. She has a lot to say. She is relatable. She is a mother and a journalist. And how many people do you know who have talked to both the pope and Madonna?"

Looking to cable

On the other hand, NBC Enterprises' venture in syndication this year is not personality-driven; in the show "Starting Over," women going through various life changes live together in a house in Chicago. It is produced by Bunim/Murray, the same folks who have done MTV's "Road Rules" and "Real World."

"We as syndicators do have to look to cable now. There is a Learning Channel and Discovery and the Food Network that have good ideas," Finnell said. "What we have to do is look at what works on cable and see if it fits in syndication. In the case of 'Starting Over,' it had a bit of soap opera, which is traditional in daytime, and talk show and a bit of reality TV."

One reason it may be easier to put on a "Starting Over" than a host-and-guest-driven show these days is that there are only so many A-list celebrities to go around. Even with the King World imprimatur, "Living It Up!" can't match, say, "Live With Regis and Kelly."

On Tuesday, for instance, Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa chatted with Madonna, Diane Sawyer and rocker Pink, while Ali and Jack had to settle for "Survivor" castoff Andrew Savage and fourth-stringers from "The Sopranos" (Steven Schirripa) and, ironically, Ripa's old show, "All My Children" (Aiden Turner). And on Oct. 13, "Living It Up!" had Nick Lachey of the music group 98 Degrees (and husband of now-famously ditzy Jessica Simpson), actor Jeremy Piven and kids showing off decorated pumpkins, while Regis and Kelly chatted with more well-known actors Gary Sinise and Jessica Biel, basketball star Scottie Pippen and singer Lou Rawls. With DeGeneres and Osbourne and, next year, Jane Pauley, it isn't going to be any easier for "Living It Up!" let alone any other new shows.

"What we have found is that lowest-common-denominator programming doesn't work anymore," said Paratore of Warner/Telepictures. "We're now all going for more upscale audiences, which in the end makes for better shows. But that will make it harder for one to break out. In Ellen and Sharon, we think we have two really good personalities.

"You know early on that you have a good show," he said. "But it has to go on every day, build and build an audience, and that is never easy."

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