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Looking for the next Oprah

Tony Danza the next Oprah? While some in the business find that really hard to imagine, it isn't stopping his handlers from pitching him to Hollywood producers as a talk prospect (no takers yet that we know of). But who knows? Who would have guessed that a guy who communes with the dead would have started a talk sub-genre?

But that's just what Crossing Over With John Edward
did this season. Next season, a second talk-to-the-dead show debuts, Beyond With James Van Praagh.

Danza (Family Law, Who's the Boss) is just one of many celebrities whose managers are pitching them as the next big-name talk-show host. Who's to blame them, given the potential for steady work at a seven- or eight-figure payoff?

Kirstie Alley (Cheers
and Veronica's Closet) apparently has aspirations to join the chat circuit. So do Fran Drescher (The Nanny), Janine Turner (Northern Exposure), Josie Bissett (Melrose Place) and Gloria Estefan.

It's part of the feverish effort to fill what will be a huge void when Oprah Winfrey does her last show in May 2006. And while that is still four years away, the push is already on now to fill it, says Bill Carroll, vice president, programming, Katz Media Group.

For years, the industry has assumed Winfrey would call it quits at some point, says Carroll. "That used to be in the future. Now it's on the immediate horizon," he says. "She's gone in May of 2006, but you have to be on the air by 2004 to generate a ratings track record if you're going to seriously be considered as a replacement."

Producers agree.

Warner Bros. has two new talk shows (so far) in development for the next two years—Caroline Rhea, which bows this fall, and Ellen DeGeneres, set to debut in 2003. Does Jim Paratore, executive vice president, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, and president, Telepictures Productions, have the next hit? Time will tell. The expectation, he says, is that both new shows have "long-term franchise" potential.

Rhea, of course, is filling a more immediate void in the talk-show ranks: the departing Rosie O'Donnell
, the only current talk show that ever gave Oprah
a run for the money in the key women demographics, says Paratore.

And Rosie's decision to quit is just part of the talk-show churn this season. Five of the 15 talk shows that started this season won't start next season. Two are already gone: Iyanla
and Talk or Walk. In addition to Rosie, Sally Jessy Raphael
and Ananda Lewis
will be off the air by summer's end.

Not to worry. Seven new ones join the fray this fall: Rob Nelson
and Good Day Live
(Twentieth Television); The John Walsh Show
(NBC); The Wayne Brady Show
(Buena Vista); Dr. Phil
(King World); Caroline Rhea
(Warner Bros.); and Beyond With James Van Praagh.
Besides Oprah
, nine talk shows are renewed for next season: Maury
, Live With Regis and Kelly, Jerry Springer,
Montel Williams, Jenny Jones, Ricki Lake, Martha Stewart, Crossing Over
and The Other Half.

is a billion-dollar-a-year franchise, and distributor King World (now owned by Viacom) probably has the most to lose in terms of revenue. In its last issued annual report as a public company (1998), King World said about 42% of its $684 million in revenue that year (almost $290 million) was attributable to Oprah. In addition, the show generates many millions more in local ad sales for stations.

So there's a lot at stake, not least the huge local audiences that most stations use Oprah
to feed into their local newscasts.

Thus the urgency to develop talk shows. "We're going after that audience with Ellen" in 2003, says Paratore. "We think she'll be a major player there."

So is Universal Television—with a show hosted by Sarah Ferguson, the colorful ex-wife of England's Prince Andrew, called Fergie.
That show recently shot a pilot in New York that Universal will begin showing stations soon, says Steve Rosenberg, president of Universal's TV syndication arm. Maury
producer Amy Rosenblum is to executive-produce. Like Winfrey, says Rosenberg, Ferguson "has an ability to connect with the audience that you can't coach or teach."

Buena Vista Television is also developing aggressively for a very special client: the co-owned ABC stations, a number of which have dominated their markets in large part due to Oprah. Buena Vista's big bet for next season is Wayne Brady, which is slotted in Rosie
time periods on the ABC-owned stations.

Replacing Oprah
is a long-term proposition, says Holly Jacobs, executive vice president, development, Buena Vista. "We're already looking at that," she says. "It's about finding somebody or a format that brings credibility" to the time period. "It's a challenge for all of us." As for 2003, Jacobs confirms that Joan Cusak has a development deal with the studio for a possible talk show.

Other potential 2003 talk candidates: Trial by Fire, with Nancy Grace from NBC and Court TV, and a talk/variety project from Lorne Michaels that would also be distributed by NBC.

And when it comes to replacing Oprah, don't rule out King World with hot 2002 prospect and Oprah
spin-off, Dr. Phil
(which by contract can't compete head to head with Oprah).

In 2003, King World executives are hinting, they will have "the next big name in talk-show television." But they aren't saying who, which leads sources to conclude King World hasn't signed its prospect yet. No comment from the company.