Ray Heats Up Talk

The first time Rachael Ray was invited to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show last May, the Food Network star almost didn't make it. Her flight to Chicago was delayed four times, and she was sure she would miss the show and never be asked back.

“I was having a nervous breakdown, with tears rolling down my face and everything,” she remembers.

Ray arrived at her hotel at 3 a.m.—three hours before the studio car was supposed to pick her up.

While taping with Winfrey, Ray thought she was bombing. “I think it went horribly,” she says, “but we go to commercial and she says to me, 'You have it. Just always be you.' I was wondering if she was talking to me or someone else. I thought I had just made an idiot of myself to this icon and killed my career.”

Far from it. The next day, an Oprah producer invited Ray to make regular appearances. Now Ray looks poised to follow the example of another Oprah regular who went on to find success on daytime television.

Like Dr. Phil, another King World Productions-Harpo Productions venture, Rachael Ray arrives at NATPE under the Winfrey standard and with huge buzz. And like the good doctor, Ray will leverage the Winfrey connection by appearing multiple times on Oprah, right up through the fall launch of Rachael. Thanks to that backing and Ray's own built-in fan base, the show has been sold in more than 85% of the country; even competitors agree that it is one of the strongest candidates for success this fall.

Terry Wood, president, creative affairs and development, for King World Productions and Paramount Domestic Television, says that such a high-profile launch pad adds pressure to perform—not necessarily a bad thing.

“I like the pressure because it starts the actual talk about the show early,” Wood says. “The Oprah relationship will already have been leveraged by launch, which is great because people who might not have seen her on Food Network will have a chance to see her with Oprah, and that's a large core audience that will be important to us come September.”

Winfrey, who will consult on the show, will also be a valuable source of advice, says Ray.

“Oprah gives you advice whether you ask for it or not,” she says. “She says, 'Don't sweat it, things will get big and complicated, but stay in control and learn to say no a lot.'”

As for the show itself, Ray imagines a typical episode focusing on a theme, like picky eaters. There will be a taped package followed by an on-set discussion with regular guests, a segment in which Ray will offer her ideas on the topic, and finally a celebrity guest appearance. (Her top choices are Jon Stewart and Will Ferrell—especially Ferrell. “I'm a freak for him,” she says. “I'd bring him on and do cheerleading with him.”)

She also knows what she doesn't want: “I don't want any crying. I don't want any experts.”

The new show will mean cutting back her Food Network appearances to two shows instead of four, reducing her yearly episode count from 186 last year to around 100.

But Food Network, through Scripps Networks Inc., is also a partner on Rachael. Senior VP of Programming Bob Tuschman says that should give his network a boost from cross-promotion with the new show.

“Yes, she is slightly cutting back on our network,” he says. “But the new platform will reach so many more viewers and hopefully drive them to see her on our air.”

With so many ways to get a Ray fix—there is also a monthly magazine and a slew of cookbooks—Wood acknowledges that overexposure is a concern.

“I think the audience will let her know,” she says, “and she will step back from it and look at it in a smart way. I don't think she is overexposed right now; I just think the time is right for her.”

Wood also says that, while Ray has been likened to fellow syndicated host Martha Stewart, Ray's connection with the audience will be her strength.

“They produce a good show for Martha,” she says. “But Rachael has a very different relationship with the audience than Martha, and I think that is the difference.”

And while Ray has been attacked by naysayers who consider her peppy demeanor and culinary nomenclature (“evoo” for extra virgin olive oil) annoying, she tries not to worry about it.

“There's that lady who has that Rachael Ray Sucks site,” she says. “What am I going to do? Call her up and try to get her to be my buddy? Not everyone is going to like everybody.”