With several new entrants, the race for daytime talk-show viewers may be the most heated ever.
LOS ANGELES -- Katie Couric wants to be your new best friend.
Starting Monday, the former CBS anchor will start jumping out of planes, performing in Broadway musicals, sharing details of her dating life, anything to earn a spot in your heart -- and the title of Queen of Daytime TV.
Couric isn't the only one with high ambitions. Comedian Steve Harvey, actress Ricki Lake and "Survivor" host Jeff Probst are also entering the already crowded field of daytime talk shows, filling the void left by canceled soap operas and Oprah Winfrey's move to cable. In talks for launching shows in 2013: Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, Queen Latifah and Arsenio Hall.
The winners get a chance to build an empire. The losers end up begging to participate in "Celebrity Apprentice."
"This is probably the most significant fall season for daytime TV in history," said Jamey Giddens, editorial director for DaytimeConfidential.com, a website that's covered the terrain since 2007. "It's really going to be a battle."
Since Winfrey left her syndicated show in 2011, no talk-show host has rightfully claimed her throne.
Her protege, Dr. Phil, led the pack last season, averaging 4 million viewers each weekday, but that's significantly fewer than the 6 million Winfrey drew in her final season. Anderson Cooper's show, which debuted last season to much fanfare, finished ninth out of the 12 daytime talkers.
Fitting the demographic (or not)
All of the newcomers have good reason to believe they can do better than that.
Lake's last talk show, which straddled the line between personal subjects and tabloidish confessionals, lasted 11 seasons before going off the air in 2004. At 43, she can speak directly to daytime's biggest audience, women ages 25 to 54.
"I think I'm ready to come back in a different way," Lake said. "I'm a little bit older, a little bit wiser and more evolved. I'm still representing the audience that grew up with me."
Probst doesn't have a lot in common with the target demographic, which is one reason he'll incorporate his wife into many discussions on the show. It also will ingratiate itself to its mostly female studio audience with a backstage party room where they can get massages and makeovers before the taping.
He also hopes to separate himself from the pack by being extraordinarily open about his personal life.
"I wouldn't ask a guest to answer a question that I'm not prepared to answer myself," said Probst, who looks to emulate the Phil Donahue model by heavily interacting with the audience.
Harvey, the only comic among the fresh faces, has had several different personas -- game-show host, relationship expert, author -- and he'll most likely bring them all out for his Chicago-based show.
The player with the highest expectations, and therefore the most pressure, is Couric. According to the trade journal the Hollywood Reporter, the show's budget is $80 million, a huge price tag in a genre that studios cherish because it's usually cheap to produce. Former NBC President Jeff Zucker, who got his start directing Couric on "Today," is back in the booth as executive producer and Grammy winner Sheryl Crow penned the theme song.
Couric mastered the ability to mix light and hard news during her morning-TV run from 1991 to 2006, but people's memories are short. Right now, Couric is best known as the woman who failed to successfully lead "The CBS Evening News."
"I think there's probably a need to refamiliarize myself and who I am in terms of being natural, spontaneous, interactive and a kind of more casual, less formal journalist," said Couric, who failed to lead the CBS evening newscast out of third place during a five-year run that ended last year. "When I did the 'Evening News,' I didn't have an opportunity to show those sides of myself."
What do women really want?
The members of the 2012 freshman class may have their differences, but their shows have one thing in common: A pledge to produce television that will make women feel stronger, sexier and smarter.
"A show that's got a little less fluff and a little more substance is what I would be looking for as a viewer," Lake said.
Couric, who will do her show live, plans to use her journalism background to react to breaking news, as well as spotlighting underappreciated women.
But is that what audiences really want?
It's telling that the most popular figure on daytime TV is Judge Judy, a cranky personality who weighs in on silly disputes between family members and roommates. The show, entering its 16th season, averages a whopping 8 million viewers, a feat that justifies Judith Sheindlin's $45 million salary. (By contrast, Ellen DeGeneres, who is considered a resounding success, attracts 2.7 million.)
"The judge shows offer all the soapiness that daytime soaps used to offer with cheating spouses and general craziniess," said Giddens of DaytimeConfidential.
"We're in a recession and I can look at these people whose lives are so much worse than mine."
He pointed out that ABC's "The Revolution," a health care and lifestyle show that debuted in January, was canceled by July, while Winfrey, who promised to make her OWN cable network a platform for empowerment, is now forced to conduct interviews with Kim Kardashian to pull any significant ratings.
The demand for fluff may explain why Cooper has revamped his show for its second season. In addition to a new set (and a new time slot in the Twin Cities, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on KMSP, Ch. 9), he'll share the stage with celebrity co-hosts including Kristin Chenoweth and Niecy Nash.
And Couric's first guest? That intellectual icon Jessica Simpson.
In the end, one of the four freshmen may indeed succeed with a serious-minded, positive-thinking program -- as long as it mixes in the occasional farmer who's marrying a goat.
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