Chat shows are popular, but can Tony Danza and Jane Pauley succeed where other hosts have floundered?
LOS ANGELES — The basic talk-show recipe seems simple enough. Put one celebrity at a desk, add another in a chair, let them talk. If things bog down, throw in some funky music, maybe a Siberian tiger plus trainer, or a 9-year-old-rubber-band collector from Des Moines. Something funny, dangerous, or downright weird is bound to happen.
Or not, as an embarrassingly high number of former daytime hosts have discovered. As elementary as the formula sounds, the daytime talk show is one of the most difficult programs to establish on television. Just ask veterans of failed shows such as Caroline Rhea and Martin Short. Or Wayne Brady and Sharon Osborne, each of whom failed to have their current talk shows renewed.
The failure rate doesn't appear to stanch the flow of hopefuls. Far from it: Jane Pauley, former coanchor of NBC's "Dateline," launched her own namesake show this week, and actor Tony Danza's show debuts next week. Brooke Shields, Vanessa Williams, and Michael Bolton are slated for their own shows within the year.
Yet the sad truth is that most talk shows fail because few celebrities possess the unique combination of conversational wit, unflappable chutzpah, and natural chemistry with guests and audiences alike to sustain a show.
"The difficulty of being a personality [with whom] audiences will want to spend five hours a week makes it surprising in some ways that anyone succeeds," says Amanda Lotz, assistant professor of media studies at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.
Those few who have found their niche - Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah, Dr. Phil - have given daytime TV more prestige than ever before. But those shows have such loyal audiences that it's increasingly difficult for newcomers to compete.
Jane Pauley's producer realized he had to quickly educate himself about the genre.
"When I first took on this challenge," says producer Michael Weisman, "I thought - mistakenly - that daytime talk was the way it was 20 years ago, that you simply line up guests, hand them a mike, and keep it moving."
This freshman crop of hopefuls say they have studied the shows that work and come to their own conclusions about what it means to be an effective interviewer. "You have to listen," says Mr. Danza, who hopes to draw from his own experience as a guest on other talk shows. "The thing you learn from good interviewers is that they're there. It's not, 'What's my next question?' It's 'I'm listening to you and I'm having a conversation.' "
Jane Pauley, too, has been watching the women of daytime closely. If there's one thing she's learned, it's this: don't shy away from expressing your individuality.
"One of the things I particularly admire about Ellen's show is how many creative ways she found to say, 'I am Ellen,' " says Ms. Pauley, "This is exactly what Ellen wears, this is how Ellen looks, this is what Ellen does."
It takes far more than deft interview techniques and colorful self expression to start up a talk show nowadays. Distributors are reluctant to pick up a show that doesn't have a celebrity's name on it. Fortunately, dozens of recognizable stars are eager to set up their own interviewer's couch in a TV studio. Unfortunately, many of them are celebrities past their prime.
"There used to be all these great places that people with a certain amount of celebrity equity could go after their big moment was over," says media pundit Robert Thompson, pointing to TV shows as "The Love Boat," or "Murder, She Wrote," which specialized in rotating celebrity guest stars. But Professor Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York, observes that the talk show has become the ultimate tool for an agent to extend and transform a client's moment in the limelight.
"They have clients who have made a name in one place or another and they're looking for a place to settle in. The talk show is the most viable opportunity and that's why so many line up," he says.
A talk-show gig can even be an opportunity for a reality TV star to extend his 15 minutes of fame. Former "Apprentice" candidate Ereka Vetrini, for example, will return to screens as the sidekick on Tony Danza's show, which will broadcast live from New York.
In most cases, the skills that brought the celebs their original fame are not the ones that will make them congenial conversationalists or witty interviewers. Actors are used to having scripts, and comedians are used to having the microphone to themselves. Failure is almost guaranteed in most cases. That's why networks adopt what might be called a "spaghetti approach."
"Basically, they can afford to throw [out] a whole lot of these things and see what sticks," says Arthur Brooks, a media analyst in New York.
It helps that talk shows are much cheaper to produce than other scripted formats. Mr. Brooks relates a recent conversation he had with a development executive in Hollywood. "He said, 'I know most of these things will flop, the industry is full of filler like this. But if we can get just a single blockbuster out of all these possibilities, it's worth it."
And, sometimes, it's the unexpected show that rises to the top. Few media watchers would have predicted that "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," which debuted one year ago, would become a smash hit.
If successful daytime talk shows have one thing in common, it is the host's ability to connect with audiences - in the studio as well as at home. It was Danza's peculiar ability to relate to "nearly everyone he met," that led executive producer John Redmann to take on the actor's talk show. "You see such a wide, diverse group of people who love him," says the veteran producer. "He connects with people unlike any other host that I've ever worked with."
While David Letterman's curmudgeonly ways and Conan O'Brien's ironic approach may work wonders with late-night audiences, their style simply won't win over the daytime viewers.
"Hosts have to come off as someone that you could invite over for meatloaf and they would come and be happy to do it," says Thompson. "Oprah does that, Rosie [O'Donnell] gave off that feeling, and Ellen is pulling it off as well."