Reporting from New York -- After 40 years in television, Regis Philbin might finally get to sleep late. On Tuesday, during the opening segment of “Live With Regis and Kelly,” the veteran talk show host announced that he will leave the early-morning program this summer or fall. As Philbin has co-anchored “Live” or its predecessor for the last 28 years, first with Cyndy Garvey, then Kathie Lee Gifford and currently with Kelly Ripa, his departure marks the end of one of the longest-running hosting jobs in television history.
“This will be my last year on this show,” Philbin told a surprised studio audience. Though he didn’t give an official explanation for his retirement, the 79-year-old has been struggling with his health, undergoing triple bypass surgery in 2007 and a hip replacement in 2009. “There is a time that everything must come to an end for certain people on camera -- especially certain old people,” he joked.
Many will remember Philbin for that wiseacre wit, which earned him the nickname “Outregis” from Gifford, and helped establish his legacy as the morning-show king. Though he got his start as an NBC page and went on to play Joey Bishop’s sidekick on “The Joey Bishop Show,” coin catchphrases on ABC’s hit game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” and banter with David Letterman on “Late Show,” it was “Live” that brought his espresso-shot energy, big personality and avuncular jokes to a national audience.
“He’s everyman to so many people,” said Gifford on the Today” show, after Philbin made his announcement. “Nobody tells a story like Reeg does.”
The move comes at a time when daytime TV is undergoing a massive changing of the guard. Oprah Winfrey will soon leave her network gig to focus on her OWN network. “The View” has been cycling through an ever-changing cast of co-hosts. Relative newcomers such as Tyra Banks are targeting a much younger demographic, leaving traditional daytime viewers to watch TV judges and therapists. Now it seems the only veteran talk show hosts are on late night, and even their numbers are dwindling since Piers Morgan took over Larry King’s slot on CNN.
Meanwhile, dozens of younger cable personalities are vying to take their place. “In this age of media fractionalization, I don’t think you can expect to see the ratings that Oprah or Regis got, simply because they’ve been there since the 1980s,” said Brad Adgate, vice president of research at Horizon Media. “You’re going to have viewers experimenting to see what else is on.”
Philbin reached a comfort level with viewers, says Adgate, because “he spent more hours on television than anybody in the history of the medium.” (Philbin currently holds the Guinness World Record for broadcast hours, racking up more than 15,600.) “People have gotten very comfortable with Regis. They know all his digressions and how much he loves Notre Dame. ABC can find someone to replace him, but finding someone who feels that familiar to people will be tough.”
Philbin hosted KABC-TV’s top-rated “A.M. Los Angeles” from 1975 to 1981 before taking on the New York-based “Live” (known as “The Morning Show” when it premiered back in 1983.) He helped make it No. 1 in the market with his man-about-town manner and neighborly Bronx accent. “Regis was Mr. New York,” said Bill Carroll, a vice president at Katz Media, an industry consulting firm. “He went to all the openings and spent time with Donald Trump. He had a pretty active evening life outside of the show, because he knew that was what he was going to have to talk about.”
Kathie Lee Gifford joined him in 1985, and the program soon debuted in national syndication with a new title, “Live With Regis & Kathie Lee.” The duo’s playful bickering and kitchen-table conversational style felt so real, people often thought that Philbin and Gifford were married. By the time Ripa replaced Gifford in 2001, the program’s naturalistic format had influenced a whole generation of talk shows.
“You’ve just got two people in the studio, and the thing costs about 5 cents to produce -- a lot of people copied that,” said Adgate. “You look at ‘The View’ and ‘The Talk’ and the ‘Today’ show and they’re all takeoffs of what Regis did -- it’s just that most of them are women. Who’s to say? They could replace him with a female.”
In the coming months, Disney-ABC Television Group will name a new co-host to join Ripa, who celebrates 10 years with ‘Live’ next month. Already, analysts are speculating about who might step in to replace Philbin. Even Larry King threw his hat in the ring. “I would sit in for him for a few weeks,” he told “Inside Edition” on Tuesday. “I would get a kick out of that.”
But can the show survive without its most famous face?
“How do you replace someone like Regis?” Adgate asks. “Well, how do you replace someone like Oprah? The answer is, you can’t. He’s been there for four generations. It’s really the end of an era.”