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Syndication Turns Community Leaders Into Stars

Nick Cannon
Nick Cannon’s new daytime talker will take time to spotlight charities and community leaders near its Harlem studio. (Image credit: Debmar-Mercury)

While Nick Cannon and Jay Leno are both debuting shows this fall — alongside such stalwarts as Kelly Clarkson and Drew Barrymore — the real stars of syndication in 2021 are regular people doing amazing things in their communities across the country.

Whether it’s a new talker, like Nick Cannon, or a veteran program, like Rachael Ray, almost every show is looking to spotlight people who serve their communities. After a year and a half spent slogging through a global pandemic, producers hope to keep audiences enthralled with a balance of inspiration and entertainment, of everyday people and of flashy celebrities.

“One of the things we are looking forward to most is showcasing people doing amazing and incredible things,” said Matt Strauss, one of four executive producers on Debmar-Mercury’s Nick Cannon, along with Katy Murphy Davis, Michael Goldman and Cannon. “We’re looking forward to telling stories about people making a difference in their communities.”

“Community is important to Nick and using his fame to make a positive impact is also important to him,” Murphy Davis said. “First and foremost, we want the show to be fun, inspirational, entertaining and positive.”

Nick Cannon, which will replace Warner Bros.’s The Real as a lead-in to Debmar-
Mercury’s Wendy Williams on many owned-and-operated Fox affiliates (The Real will continue to air on Fox-owned duopoly stations) when it premieres on Monday, Sept. 27, is being produced at the NET Metropolis Studios at 106th and Park in Harlem. Featuring Harlem-based organizations, charities and community leaders as a regular part of the show also is important to Cannon, Strauss said.

The show — which will air live three days a week, with two days taped — will also include a mix of pop culture, celebrity, music and fashion, “all viewed through Nick’s unique lens,” Murphy Davis said. “In daytime, it is all about people wanting to spend that hour with that person,” she continued. “I think it’s really important to Nick to have a really authentic connection to his audience. He calls his audience family. He’s fun to spend time with and we want people to experience that.” 

Betting on Leno

The Fox stations also are introducing another new series this year: You Bet Your Life, starring Leno and his Tonight Show band leader, Kevin Eubanks. The show will start with three or four minutes of comedy from that duo before the contestants — all of whom have some interesting claim to fame — are introduced. The contestants will then answer trivia questions for the chance to win money. 

You Bet Your Life

You Bet Your Life with Jay Leno seeks out contestants with “unique, fun stories,” a Fox Television Stations exec said.  (Image credit: Fox Television Stations)

“We specifically go out and find people who have unique, fun stories,” said Stephen Brown, executive VP, programming and development, Fox Television Stations. “The cool thing about the show is that it really fulfills the promise of America — it’s two strangers coming together to work together. We’re seeing people from completely different sides of the country, in all different colors, shapes and sizes, working together, high-fiving each other, laughing and having a great time. That’s what we need right now.”

All episodes of You Bet Your Life, which is cleared in 98% of the country, are being shot this fall. The show debuts in national syndication on Monday, Sept. 13. 

Getting a Drew-Over

Headed into its season-two premiere on Monday, Sept. 13, CBS Media Ventures’ Drew Barrymore is looking forward to building connections to its audience, especially since the year-old show hasn’t been able to be produced in front of a live audience until now. 

Drew Barrymore, which was shot in a New York City studio without an audience all last year, will open season two with a week of shows shot from the Paramount lot in Los Angeles, with a live audience joining Barrymore in an outdoor setting. 

“We’re coming out of the gate swinging,” executive producer Jason Kurtz said. “The premiere that we’re planning is the one we deserved last year and that we earned this year having been through what we’ve been through. Instead of one season-two premiere episode. we’re building a two-week event under the umbrella of ‘there’s no place like home.’ We were talking about how we can celebrate everyone’s hometowns and Drew was talking lovingly about her hometown of Los Angeles, so we’re taking the show on the road for our first week back. 

“We are planning five eventful episodes that feel big and loud and exciting. Within those five episodes, we’re celebrating different hometowns with our viewers, whether it’s Dallas, Washington, D.C., or Denver. Then we’re continuing that when we return home to New York and create five more eventful episodes in our new hometown or New York City.” 

Drew Barrymore plans to continue with “Drew-Gooder” segments that feature “heart-warming, inspiring human-interest and lifestyle stories,” Kurtz said. “Drew does such an excellent job of making people feel comfortable and we want to continue that. We now want to bring the audience in and make them part of the conversation.”

Kurtz means that literally. Every time a show is taped, one audience member will be chosen to sit in the “co-host chair,” where they will be given a binder about that day’s guests, have a camera on them and be given the opportunity to ask their own questions. 

“We’re looking at that as a way to incorporate the studio audience with the at-home viewers,” Kurtz said. “Last year, we would offer the at-home audience a pop quiz and whoever first answered three questions correctly about what had happened on that day’s show would win $1,000. This year, that will be fun to do with studio audience members.”

Although the cast and crew of Drew Barrymore are excited to finally be shooting in front of a live audience, they also plan to keep some things in place they used during the pandemic — such as technology that allowed a guest to join them from Los Angeles but look like they were on set in New York City. 

Other shows plan to keep some things they did during the pandemic in place, even though they don’t necessarily have to. 

Rachael Ray at Home

CBS Media Ventures’ Rachael Ray was forced to shoot shows from Ray’s home in Lake Luzerne, New York, in the Adirondacks when the pandemic hit. The show moved to her guest house all last season after the main house burned down late last summer. 

Never daunted, Ray just kept on shooting while her home was rebuilt. She’ll provide an update on the house when the show returns for season 16 on Monday, Sept. 13. 

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” said Janet Annino, an executive producer of Rachael Ray since it debuted in 2006. “What we learned doing the show from Rachael’s house was that viewers loved it and she actually enjoyed it too. It really opened up a whole new layer with her that the audience connected with. We’re building on that this season with a hybrid model in which some shows are shot from her home and some from the studio.”

Michael Strahan on 'Rachael Ray'

Rachael Ray interviews Good Morning America's Michael Strahan from home on her syndicated talker.  (Image credit: CBS Media Ventures)

Rachael Ray also is redoing the in-studio set to more closely reflect Ray’s home to maintain that intimate connection with viewers no matter where the show is shooting from.

“The new set is a little bit scaled down and very cozy,” Annino said. “It reflects a lot of the elements that you see in her house — more casual seating on the floor that’s closer to Rachael. There will be less of an audience behind a proscenium and more people on love seats and chairs and cushions on the floor.”

“When we are in the studio, it is our fond wish and plan to have people there in person,” Annino said. “That might not always be possible so we’re still open to having people Zoom in or whatever. When we’re [shooting the show] at [Rachael’s] home, that is what we’ll do.”

Rachael Ray, which is celebrating its “sweet and savory 16th season,” also will focus on community service this year, with such segments as “The Nice List” and “2021-ders” carrying over from last year. In these segments, the show found people who were doing “incredible things in their communities and making a difference one thing at a time. That’s something we are going to continue — high­lighting people who are bringing food to food deserts, packing backpacks for kids in need and so forth. That’s become one of the hallmark staples of this show. For Rachael right now, it’s really about showing that one person can make a difference.”

Finally, Wrigley Media’s new court show, Relative Justice, which is cleared in more than 82% of the country and premieres Monday, Sept. 13, sees Judge Rhonda Mills solve the problems of average people who are in conflict with someone in their family — whether it’s their parents, siblings or cousins. 

“The feelings people express on this show are so genuine, the viewers will be so drawn in with the families and feeling compassion for them,” said Misdee Wrigley, CEO of Wrigley Media, which is based in Lexington, Kentucky. “Several viewers will say ‘I’ve been in that situation, and that’s happened to me.’ We’ve been surprised by how open people are once they get in front of Rhonda and start to talk about their lives.”

While the pandemic is not over, prod­ucers are relieved to be getting back to some semblance of normal. 

“Last year, the challenges upon us were ever-changing,” Drew Barrymore’s Kurtz said. “Our motto became ‘turn every obstacle into an opportunity.’ It was hard to plan when you were constantly being challenged with new parameters. That still exists to an extent but now nothing is even giving us pause this year — we’re able to pivot quicker, even while we’re ever mindful of what’s happening out there.” 

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.