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Stations Ponder'Live! With Regis'…Without Regis

Station managers carrying Live! With Regis and Kelly were largely caught off guard by last week’s news that this season will be Regis Philbin’s last, but many of them see opportunity going forward. Some say it’s a chance for Kelly Ripa, with a decade on the job, to carry the show. It’s also a chance for the Live! audience to get a lot younger.

The station chiefs unanimously saluted Philbin for his extraordinarily long and storied broadcasting career, and specifically for his work on the morning program. “It’s been terrific for us,” says Klarn DePalma, WFSB Hartford-New Haven VP/general manager. “It starts the day very well at 9 a.m. It’s been a staple, and Regis has done a great job.”

Philbin shared his plans with the show’s principals hours before breaking the news to the masses on the air Jan. 18. For the most part, station partners heard the news the same time viewers did—when Philbin announced it at the top of the program.

General managers at the ABC-owned stations found out just before showtime. “It was a pretty closely guarded secret,” says one insider who asked not to be named. (The ABC owned station group did not comment on Philbin’s announcement.)

Some weren’t all that surprised with the news, due both to Philbin’s age (he’s 79) and the fact that the show had been employing more guest hosts as Philbin took time off. “You know the day is coming,” says one GM in a Top 20 market. “You just don’t know when.”

Some station executives say there is a big opportunity to grow ratings with a change in the cohost’s chair. That Philbin has taken considerable time off this season hasn’t helped some stations build momentum for Live!. Partners at the local level hope both a Philbin farewell tour and a fresh face in the cohost chair will goose—and sustain—ratings. “The show has been in a rather slow decline,” says Jim Lutton, WWMT Grand Rapids VP/general manager. “This gives them a real opportunity to reinvent the program.”

A long lineup of guest hosts has filled in, including cohost Kelly Ripa’s husband, Mark Consuelos, and the comic Howie Mandel, giving Live! producers a rich batch of potential replacements to choose from. Some general managers note how Anderson Cooper might have been the best fit on Live! (“That was the first thing I thought of,” says Joe Lewin, WHTM Harrisburg president/GM), but Cooper of course took himself out of play after announcing his own daytime talk show. Insiders expect Live! syndicator Disney- ABC Television Group to look for someone in the Cooper mold: male, youngish and popular with female viewers.

Live! producers will likely test several candidates as guest hosts, much as they did when Kathie Lee Gifford departed the show in 2000. Most expect the replacement to be a big name, but Ripa, formerly of All My Children, was hardly a household name when she came on board. That smooth transition bodes well for Live! With Regis and Kelly.

“A lot of people thought the show would be hurt when Kathie Lee left,” says Wayne Simons, Fort Meyers Broadcasting/WINK Fort Meyers VP/ general manager. “But I’ve got confi dence they’ll fine someone solid, just like they did when Kathie Lee left, and do fine in the long term.”

Philbin’s departure may provide a chance for Ripa to assume a larger role in the program. “She is a special talent and more than pulls her own weight in the show’s appeal,” says Bill Hoffman, WSB Atlanta VP/ GM and VP of Cox Media Group. “I think they will find someone to pair with her that keeps the show strong and popular.”

General managers say the fees they pay for Live! aren’t likely to change when the A-list star steps off the stage; that scenario was already factored in when the current contracts were ironed out.

Philbin said he plans to leave in late summer or fall; he turns 80 in August. In September, Oprah Winfrey makes her break from broadcast TV. Both are rare broadcasting icons who command major program fees in the local markets.

“Regis has built a wonderful legacy and a nice, sustaining program,” says Lisa Churchville, WJAR Providence VP/general manager. “It’s an easier transition than finding a replacement for Oprah.”

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