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Venus: A Cybill action

Dr. Laura may have grabbed the headlines, but another big-name, tell-it-like-it-is celebrity is also taking a shot at talk this season.

Cybill Shepherd, most recently of CBS' Cybill and author of her best-selling memoirs, Cybill Disobedience, is heading Columbia TriStar's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. The hour, single-topic strip starts full-fledged production Sept. 13 and premieres Oct. 2.

And while Shepherd hasn't exactly been the center of syndication attention this year, that all could change given that Men, Women (described as a cross between Oprah and Politically Incorrect) has a number of things going for it.

The show is bolstered by a comfortable NBC O & O launch pad: it will inherit many of the time periods left vacant by the departing Roseanne, another former sitcom star who made the switch to syndicated talker. But CTTD executives are certain to be betting that that's where the similarities end. One source close to the show, pointing to the distinctions between Cybill and another star-driven talker, the canceled Donny & Marie, said: "This isn't the Cybill Shepherd show. It's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. The show isn't solely dependent on her as talent. This is a format-driven show where someone is carrying the format."

And in contrast to Dr. Laura's very public advertiser defections, Shepherd's stars appeared to be aligned on the advertising side. It doesn't hurt that she is a spokeswoman for both Mercedes and Revlon.

"The fact that [Mercedes], one of the top advertisers in the world, that only has an association with top-notch people, wants her as their spokesperson says a lot [about] how advertisers view her," says a source close to the project. "Plus, having the NBC station group behind it was a huge draw for the advertisers." It certainly doesn't hurt that Mars, Venus will air on "the Olympic stations, after the Olympics," says Katz TV's Bill Carroll.

Carroll also pointed out that the show "will come out of an expanded Today show in a lot of markets, so that's another advantage, having Today as your lead-in. This is one of the shows that comes out of the box with most of the advantages and few of the disadvantages."

The hour, single-topic Mars, Venus has been cleared in more than 95% of the U.S., mostly in morning time slots, with 25% to 30% of the country running it in the afternoons.

"The beauty about this show, that I've heard from a lot of stations, is that once the show goes on the air, it's something that can run both effectively in the morning or in the afternoon. So, it has immediate upgrade opportunities to afternoon time periods," says Steve Mosko, Columbia TriStar Television Distribution president.

Still, Cybill has been known for stirring up controversy.

Besides her reported spats on the set of Cybill, she has openly dissed several people in Disobedience-calling Don Johnson, for instance, a "five-minute man."

Shepherd (also a Mars, Venus producer) hopes to use that to her advantage, saying she'd "absolutely" invite any of the skewered onto her show. "They better come on, or we'll just dish them behind their backs on TV," she adds.

Mosko, and Columbia, have a lot riding on the show. CTTD has not had a breakout, first-run strip since veteran talker Ricki. It will also be Mosko's first high-profile effort as the studio's chief.

As for Shepherd's alleged clashes with her fellow producers, Mosko says, "The door swings both ways. Everything she's done with us, she's been completely professional. And she has said she is willing to do whatever it takes to make this show work, and that's what we've seen from her."

What they are trying to make work is a mix of celebrities, experts and "real people" discussing sometimes racy relationship issues.

"We're not doing John Gray's book," says Shepherd. "But he will come on the show from time to time. I have enormous respect for him. And he's had an enormous impact on people."

How does Shepherd feel about making the switch from network series to syndication?

"My whole life, I've dreamed of doing a talk show..I chose this one because it was breaking new ground, where I wasn't sitting behind a desk and doing the typical talk-show thing," she says.

The test shows, which may or may not make it to air, have covered such topics as "Fighting Fair," "Dating After Divorce" and "Rules of Sex." One featured Karen Salmansohn, who served up tips included in her book, "How to Make Your Man Behave in 21 Days or Less Using the Secrets of Dog Trainers."

"We produced a short video of her out training the men. And it was really funny," recalls Shepherd. "The men had strong reactions, so there's a lot of fun to be had."

Executive-producing Mars, Venus (in association with Merv Griffin Productions) will be Charlie Cook, who most recently worked in a similar capacity on CTTD's canceled Donny & Marie Show. But Cook isn't discouraged because Donny & Marie, another celeb-driven talk entry, never struck ratings gold.

"Every show is different, with its own energy and format," says Cook. "This is such a different animal [from Donny & Marie] that I really can't compare the two."

But even with that "things-are-in-order" feeling, you have to lay a little groundwork for the concession speech just in case.

"Daytime right now is a very crowded, competitive environment," acknowledges Mosko. However, "what's great about it--what we've found from our conversations with stations--is that it's a unique property. We have the brand recognition of Cybill, whom everybody knows."

"My hopes for this show are no different from the hopes I have for all the other programs on our slate," says Melanie Chilek, CTTD's senior vice president of development. "As I always say, though, it's always up to the viewers."