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NYC TV Week: In a Reversal, Wendy Williams Interviews Debmar-Mercury's Mort Marcus, Ira Bernstein

When Debmar-Mercury – led by co-presidents Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein – took a chance on Wendy Williams, they didn’t know how many trends they would be starting.

Wendy Williams – hosted by the already famous New York City drivetime deejay – was one of the first first-run talk shows to first air as a test, airing on Fox owned stations in the summer of 2008. It arguably went on to become one of daytime's most successful talkers, with the show this fall entering its seventh season in national syndication and continuing to show growth. After Wendy Williams, Fox began testing almost all of its new syndicated entries, including Warner Bros.’ The Real, which is now in its second season and airs after Wendy in many Fox-owned markets.

Wendy was one of the first shows to take advantage of its host’s multi-cultural appeal, something that’s become more common with Steve Harvey becoming host of Debmar-Mercury’s Family Feud as well as of his own talk show produced by NBCUniversal. And one of the reasons the Fox TV Station group just picked up NBCUniversal’s Harry, starring Harry Connick Jr., is due to Connick’s cross-cultural draw.

“We learned from Tyler Perry’s sitcoms that serving the multicultural audience was something that wasn’t being done enough in the market,” said Marcus while being interviewed by Williams during a panel at NYC Television Week’s The Content Show on Wednesday.

In the end though, shows that work grab broad audiences and that’s true for Wendy too: “Early on people would say the show was going to skew too black. We would tell them to turn the volume up and close your eyes. If you listen to her talk for 10 minutes, you will see that it doesn’t skew black or white, it’s just a show,” said Marcus.

One trend that Wendy didn’t start but that is definitely key to the show’s success is Williams’ authenticity and her familiarity with talking live into a microphone.

“I love doing live TV,” said Williams. “When I learned this show would be live, my heart skipped.”

“You had such a unique voice in television and radio,” Bernstein told her. “If you have something that is that unique and that pointed, that’s what gets an audience.”

Williams’ talent for live TV is so great that expanding the show’s opening segment, Hot Topics, in which Williams riffs on the pop-culture news of the day, is something that all three panelists credit with helping the show rise in the ratings.

In fact, says Marcus, “we took Hot Topics and put it on YouTube and that’s become a significant source of revenue for us.”

Another trend that Williams started was staying in production through July instead of going on hiatus in May.

“I love doing the show so much,” said Williams, “and Hot Topics don’t stay so hot when you tape them in May and air them in August.”

Wendy consistently performs much better in the ratings when it’s in originals, and keeping it on longer each year is another reason the show’s ratings have risen over the years.

Williams herself attributes her success to her willingness to tell it like it is: “What do I do after the show is I go back home to Jersey and mind my own business. That’s why I can give you the voice that you are looking for. You can’t talk about people every day and expect to go to their wedding too.”

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.