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Daytime Darwinism

After months of speculation and hype, the fall 2012 TV season is finally here. And with it, the long-brewing battle of the daytime talk shows, which sees five new entrants facing off against each other and the genre’s already established veterans.

It’s not quite a game of musical chairs, but a bit of daytime Darwinism is in play, since it’s highly unlikely that all five newcomers will survive to see fall 2013.

The run-up to this fall started in March 2011, when Twentieth announced it was bringing Ricki Lake back to daytime talk. Three months later, Katie Couric, who syndicators have long sought to seduce, finally confirmed that she would leave CBS Evening News and launch a daytime talk show at Disney-ABC Television.

CBS Television Distribution, after having decided to pass on Couric, announced in June 2011 that it would give Survivor host Jeff Probst a shot; in November 2011, CTD convinced the NBC Owned Television Stations group to take a chance on Probst as well.

Steve Harvey, who previously tried to enter daytime with a live-totape version of his nationally syndicated radio show, threw his fedora in the ring a year ago, partnering with Endemol USA to produce and NBCUniversal to distribute.

Finally, NBCUniversal is adding Australian and British talk-show diva Trisha Goddard to its slate of conflict talkers, getting the show cleared on upstart stations in big markets and hoping that the Maury spinoff catches on stateside, something that Goddard’s compatriot, fellow Brit Jeremy Kyle, has so far failed to do with his U.S. talker.

Twentieth is also taking a chance on a new entertainment hybrid show, Dish Nation, which features radio DJs talking about news and pop culture tidbits of the day. While Dish Nation is plenty talky, it will air mostly in late-night time slots, competing against the likes of Warner Bros.’ TMZ.

After all of these months of hype, now comes the moment of truth: Which of these shows will survive to see season two? The answer is hard to predict, and each has its own factors by which to set expectations.

Katie has by far the strongest clearances and the best time slots. So while that show has the best chance to succeed, it also faces the highest expectations. That could work to the advantage of the rest of the pack, all of which have to be considered underdogs compared to Katie.

Steve Harvey and Jeff Probst will launch on NBC’s owned stations in top markets New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, so the fate of one could weigh on the other. The two new shows also could affect the ratings—for better or worse—of the show they lead in to, Warner Bros.’ Ellen.

Expectations are varied for Ricki Lake, which is getting positive reviews for its creative efforts but is cleared on a mixed bag of stations, with Fox- and Tribune-owned stations in the largest markets making up the show’s launch group.

Trisha Goddard is nearly unknown in the United States, but she has two decades of broadcast experience under her belt in Australia and Britain. Trisha’s biggest hurdle is that, in the biggest markets, it’s cleared on very small stations.

Meanwhile, all of these new entries have to compete against the established field of veteran talk shows, such as CTD’s Dr. Phil, entering its 11th season; Sony’s Dr. Oz, heading into its fourth; and Ellen, which is celebrating season 10. And Disney-ABC’s Live! With Kelly could see a big ratings bump this fall, the show’s 24th season in national syndication, as it introduces Fox NFL commentator Michael Strahan as Kelly Ripa’s new cohost.

Whatever ends up making it through daytime’s gauntlet, viewers can’t complain that there’s nothing to watch. From Katie Couric’s versatility to Steve Harvey’s humor to Ricki Lake’s relatability to Jeff Probst’s sense of adventure and Trisha Goddard’s years of experience, all of this year’s newcomers have something a little bit different to offer.

Katie Couric

Nobody will ever replace Oprah Winfrey, but Katie Couric is in the best position to try. Besides inheriting Oprah’s actual time slots on the stations that aired Oprah, Couric also possesses a breadth of skills that lend themselves to all areas of daytime—from light style segments to deeper interviews with hard news subjects.

“One of the exciting things for me about doing the show is I’m going to be able to flex all my muscles,” Couric told reporters at this summer’s gathering of the Television Critics Association in Los Angeles.

“I’ve been in television news, I’m sorry to say, for 33 years,” Couric said. “And I think that I’ve done such a variety of stories through the years. Some lighthearted stories, some fun stories, some celebrity-driven stories. I pride myself on being able to use the right tone and the right approach, and to be able to calibrate that approach depending on who I’m interviewing or the topic that I’m dealing with on any given day.”

Katie premieres Sept. 10 with appearances from celebrities Jessica Simpson and Sheryl Crow, both of whom have stories of recent struggles to tell. Simpson will talk to Couric about recently becoming a mother and battles with her weight, while Crow will address the diagnosis she received of a benign brain tumor. “We’ll talk to women—celebrities or otherwise—who have some kind of connection to starting over or starting a big new chapter in their lives, just like Katie,” said Michael Bass, who will coexecutive produce the show with Jeff Zucker.

Along those lines, Couric will talk to Aimee Copeland, the Georgia graduate student who this summer lost parts of her limbs to a rare flesh-eating disease.

“There aren’t a lot of places on daytime right now where those kinds of [long-form] interviews are done,” Bass said. “That’s something we feel is missing.”

But the show also will showcase Couric’s lighter side, with one episode devoted to women’s (and some men’s) devotion to their hair, and stories such as YOLO or “You Only Live Once,” which will feature Couric and some lucky viewers crossing things off their bucket lists.

“We want to bring back that personality that everyone knew and loved,” Bass said. “I honestly believe the audience has been missing that Katie for the past seven years.”

Steve Harvey

If there was ever a time for Steve Harvey to take a stab at daytime talk, that time is now. His syndicated game show, Debmar-Mercury’s Family Feud, is about to go astronomical in the ratings, with upgrades to better time slots about to hit across the country. Harvey’s book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, is a New York Times bestseller that was made into a successful movie. And the host has a steady audience, thanks to his nationally syndicated radio show and a strong online presence.

“It’s a platform that I have matured into,” said Harvey, whose self-titled talk show premiered on Sept. 4, six days before most of the rest of the pack. “My dream used to be to have a late-night show, but that’s not the goal for me anymore. I used to want to talk edgy at night, but now it’s not so much about making people laugh but to be more motivational.”

That’s not to say Harvey won’t be funny, because the recently retired stand-up comedian doesn’t know how to be anything else.

“I’m funny a lot of times when I’m not even trying,” he said. “I’ll get people laughing and then I’ll realize, wow, maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Comedians—we don’t even know we are crossing the line until we go over there.”

Harvey plans to take on everything about relationships—with spouses, children, friends, money, bosses, you name it. One of the opening shows was slated to feature “the world’s worst dater,” who earned that nickname after he started handing out post-date surveys to women. Another episode looks at so-called “helicopter parents,” and all of Harvey’s segments will be imbued with his unique humor.

“That’s what I think, God willing, will be the success of the show,” Harvey said. “They are going to allow me to be me. My dad always told me, ‘Dance with who brung you.’ When this television show premieres, I’m going to do me. Hopefully that will be good enough.”

Ricki Lake

Most daytime viewers are already well familiar with Ricki Lake, who hosted a popular, successful daytime talk show from 1993 to 2004. While that show had a good run, it was more along the lines of Maury than Oprah. This time around, Lake wants to try a different tack.

“Our mission statement is, if women are talking about it, we’ll talk about it,” said Lisa Kridos, executive producer of The Ricki Lake Show. “When you meet Ricki, your experience is that she’s your girlfriend, she’s accessible, she’s someone you want to sit down and talk with.”

Also premiering Sept. 10, Ricki’s early episodes feature a 41-year-old virgin, a talk with moms about their most embarrassing secrets and the serious story of a woman who became homeless after leaving the military, where she did a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Lake and her team also have been connecting with fans and gathering stories via social media, such as Facebook, UStream and Twitter. “We’ll run the gamut,” Kridos said.

Jeff Probst

For Jeff Probst, launching a daytime talk show is as much an adventure for him as traveling to Borneo to host a season of Survivor.

“In booking these shows, some of the best stories we’ve found are when someone says yes to something,” said Amy Coleman, The Jeff ProbstShow’s executive producer. “Everyone’s successes and joys start with a moment when they said yes.”

“Saying yes” is a broad theme that will run through the show, including an “ambush adventure” segment at the end of some episodes in which the host sends someone off on a trip meant to shake up his or her life.

“Stepping outside of your comfort zone is something I believe is worth doing,” Probst said. “When you get stagnant and you take the same walk every day and you do the same things every day, your life can get dull. Sometimes all it takes is one step in the other direction, and you find this whole new world.”

Jeff Probst will take on several stories every episode because “we want to be in line with the shorter attention span that a lot of the audience has,” Probst said. “Much like [WBEZ Chicago’s] This American Life does, we’ll take three [or more] interesting stories with a common thread and take them through the top half of the show.”

Probst also will frequently ask regular guys to join him on the couch to answer women’s questions about why they think and act like they do.

“If you are someone who is stuck in life in any way, I’ll use ‘tribal council’ skills to find that out,” Probst said, “and then I’ll challenge you to take a step outside and change your life up.”

Trisha Goddard

Trisha Goddard also may challenge guests to change up their lives, but chances are the experienced host will be more in their faces about it. “Trisha’s fearless approach has taken me by surprise,” said Paul Faulhaber, who executive produces both Maury and Goddard’s spinoff, Trisha, from NBCU’s production facility in Stamford, Conn. “She has had all of these personal experiences in her own life, and she’s not afraid to throw any of them out there for the benefit of her guests. She has a lot of courage, and I haven’t seen that kind of courage in many years when it comes to interviewing.”

Goddard, whose show premieres after everyone else’s, on Sept. 17, is just doing what she does best on a new stage.

“I learned to ski in New Zealand and Australia,” she said. “Anyone who skis knows that if you can ski on ice, you can ski anywhere. If you can get people in Australia to talk to you, you can do it anywhere.”

Sticking with that metaphor, Goddard said getting Americans to talk is like shushing down a blue groomer on a sunny day.

“In the States, people are good at being open, talking and articulating,” she said. “You don’t have to be grammatically correct to be articulate. If people are in pain, in a family context, people here can talk about it.”

Everything is in place—the development is done, the shows are in production, and the promos are rolling full steam. Now it’s up to the viewers. May the best show win.

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