After Hitting 1,000, ‘Wendy’ Is Still Climbing

When Debmar-Mercury decided to test drive-time radio DJ Wendy Williams as a TV talk-show host in 2008, no one knew if the experiment would work. Williamswas extremely popular on radio in New York, but it wasn’t clear if her outsized personality and brash opinions would work on television.

Turns out, they did—but not right away. After six seasons in syndication, Wendy Williams hit 1,000 episodes on Jan. 29 and is up 23% in household ratings season-to-date compared to last year, the largest gain of any talk show. Wendy, which also airs on cable network BET, ranks fifth among day-time talk’s key demographic of women 25-54 and indexes third among African- American audiences, just behind Warner Bros.’ The Real and NBCUniversal’s Maury.

“This season, it just seems to be a whole new level of success,” says Lonnie Burstein, Debmar-Mercury executive VP of programming. “The zeitgeist of Wendy Williams seems to be all over the place.”

New YorkWendy Williams

The heart of Wendy Williams’ success remains in her home market of New York, where two weeks into its test, the show was a hit. After premiering in six Fox markets on July 14, 2008, the show quickly became Fox-owned WNYW’s highest-rated program among women 25-54 in day-time and access. Last November, Wendy Williams was the highest-rated show in the demo on WNYW for the entire day, at a 1.8 average rating.

But Wendy Williams wasn’t immediately as well-received in the rest of the country when it launched nationally in fall 2009. In some markets, such as Denver, Debmar-Mercury has had trouble even clearing it. But even that is changing: next season, Wendy Williams will take over Meredith Vieira’s 9 a.m. time slot on E.W. Scripps-owned KMGH Denver, an ABC affiliate. This season, Wendy took over Katie’s former time slot on Cox’s WSCO Charlotte, N.C., at 10 a.m., leading out of Disney-ABC’s Live With Kelly and Michael.

“Coming from radio, she was a little rough around the edges in the early days, but she definitely had a point of view,” says Ira Bernstein, copresident of Debmar-Mercury.

“We knew we needed to make noise. Wendy was amazing on radio, and really the only issue was making the content a little more mainstream. Once we sat with her, we knew that would be easy,” says Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar-Mercury.

Fox loved the show from the get-go and has been a big supporter, helping keep it on the air while it went through its creative growing pains. Things also started to change in the second season, when Debmar-Mercury brought on David Perler to executive produce.

Turning ‘Radio Wendy’ Into ‘TV Wendy’

“When I got here, [Williams] was being incredibly opinionated and vocal, but the show wasn’t really presenting it in the right way,” Perler says. “One of the challenges was taking Radio Wendy and turning her into TV Wendy.”

One of the key elements was producing the show’s popular opening segment, Hot Topics, more carefully. While Williams still spends that time riffing on celebrity news, producers first curate what she will talk about and then go over those topics with her prior to going on the air. At the start of season four, Hot Topics expanded to 20 minutes; this season, all Monday episodes are dedicated to just Hot Topics. Concurrently, the show’s ratings have risen.

The show also has grown on social channels, particularly Facebook, where it has more than 2.5 million likes; Twitter, where Williams has 1.3 million followers; and You- Tube, where Wendy has more than 500,000 subscribers to its channel.

Now that Wendy Williams has made it to 1,000 episodes, Debmar- Mercury is looking ahead. “I don’t think there were a lot of people outside of Debmar-Mercury and our partners at Fox who thought the show would make it to year two,” says Burstein. “Wendy is a lot of the reason why shows today are getting renewed to year two, even when their first-year ratings are low.”

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.