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A Good ManIs Hard to Find

Matt Lauer just re-upped as coanchor of the Today show for a reported $30 million per year (including bonuses), and according to many industry sources, he is worth every penny.

NBC’s Today is a lucrative franchise on which Lauer is the key male host, but that situation is now more anomaly than norm in daytime. Granted, the daylight hours—much like late-night—remain one of the few real estate areas of TV where personality has tended to trump programming. But in these leaner economic times, with so much at stake, hosts have to prove themselves long before they start earning the really big bucks.

“It’s all subjective,” says Babette Perry, vice president of IMG. “If the Today show is making millions of dollars based on their success, then Matt is entitled to that money. You are worth what the market will bear.”

The problem for today’s hosts is that the daytime TV market won’t bear much.

For example, Regis Philbin last year departed Live! With Regis and Kelly, the daytime talk show through which the legendary host was on a first-name basis with TV viewers across the country. Regis’ farewell celebration in November was met with high ratings. But even after Philbin moved on, Live! has managed to hold up in the ratings while Kelly Ripa hosts the show with one handsome guest cohost after another.

No one thinks that anyone can replace Philbin, but several men have broken out enough in their trial runs to be brought back to Live! several times. Among them: actor Jerry O’Connell, Fox Sports football commentator Michael Strahan, comedian and game-show host Howie Mandel, actor and singer Josh Groban, Extra! host Mario Lopez and former NFL and The Bachelor star Jesse Palmer.

representatives insist there is still no short list, and so far, the list assuredly is not short. Other men who have made several appearances on the show include Nick Lachey, who will again cohost May 10-11, and ABC News’ Dan Abrams. Once Live! settles on a few finalists, viewers will see them appear in longer runs, which is what happened when the show’s producers were deciding on Ripa to replace Kathie Lee Gifford in 2000.

“Regis was so good that he enabled Kelly to develop her own style and gave her the great opportunity to become what she’s become,” says John Ferriter, managing director of Octagon Entertainment. “Kelly’s taken over, and now they want to reinvigorate the franchise.”

Not to mention that a good man apparently remains hard to find. Says Perry: “If it was so easy to find a good male host, they already would have found Regis’ replacement.”

Whomever ends up sitting next to Kelly on Live!’s stools certainly won’t be making the salary that Philbin did, and that’s the standard in today’s TV environment.

“Because of the changing economics of the business, the numbers for talent are dramatically different than they were 10 years ago,” says one industry observer.

It’s also common for long-running shows to switch out their talent to find someone newer and more dynamic in an attempt to both lure younger viewers and cut costs.

In March, Entertainment Tonight cohost Mark Steines said he would not renew his current contract, although sources say he will likely work past June, when that contract expires. Meanwhile, ET is on the hunt for a young new male star to pair with Nancy O’Dell, who took over the show when Mary Hart ended her run last summer.

One person who has shown up recently on ET is former X Factor host Steve Jones, although ET representatives will only confirm that the show does plan to find a new male cohost.

What has been proven in the past few years is that pinpointing the right person can revitalize an aging brand, as with Drew Carey joining The Price Is Right and Steve Harvey coming on to Family Feud. Those shows have accomplished a rare television feat: Both are now drawing younger audiences and performing better than they were before.

Meanwhile, the search for those perfect male cohosts— a “Matt Lauer type,” at least in terms of appeal— continues.

“Lauer is the exception,” says Bill Carroll, vice president, programming, Katz Media Group. “In the current environment, no one starts at that level. If you are still around five to 10 years later, which means the show has been successful, then you get to share in the success.”

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