Rosie O'Donnell is looking to get back into daytime TV — but she faces some mighty big hurdles if she’s hoping to replicate her past success.
Eschewing the studio system, O’Donnell has formed a new business venture with former Warner Bros. syndication executives Dick Robertson and Scott Carlin and is planning to self-syndicate a new talk show strip as early as fall 2011, a person familiar with her plans said.
O’Donnell has made no secrets of her plans: She’s been hinting about it on her daily Sirius radio show for weeks now. Two gossip websites, Gossip Cop and Hollywood 411, claimed credit for breaking the news Friday.
The fact that O’Donnell is hooking up with ex-Warners executives — as opposed to returning to the studio’s Telepictures unit, run by longtime Rosie pal/former producer Hilary Estey McLoughlin — is a clear sign that O’Donnell is unlikely to attempt to simply duplicate the fun-and-breezy Queen of Nice formula that initially made her a monster success in daytime nearly a decade ago.
What’s most likely, industry insiders said, is that O’Donnell is looking for a way to make as much money as possible while also maintaining maximum creative control of her show. In success, syndication can be extremely lucrative — though given the depressed state of daytime syndication right now, a big payday is hardly a given.
(It’s also worth noting that O’Donnell probably isn’t looking to make big money just for herself. She’s been extremely generous with the millions of profits she made from her last show, and it’s likely she’d use any profits from a new venture to funnel back into causes she supports.)
If O’Donnell wanted to simply re-create "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," it seems likely she’d have reunited with Telepictures. McLoughlin, her close friend, runs the unit and it’s understood that the two have maintained a close relationship over the years. Telepictures would likely jump at the chance to bring old-school Rosie back to the syndie marketplace.
But in recent years, O’Donnell has been more interested in platforms that allow her to express her strong opinions on a range of topics — something that, while it makes for compelling viewing, can provoke the ire of many vocal interest groups. O’Donnell’s comments during her tenure on "The View," mixed with her clashes with colleagues, led to her exit from the ABC daytime show.
By forming her own company, rather than pacting with a major player, O’Donnell avoids having to clash with higher-ups nervous about content.
"She can control her own destiny," one TV wag told TheWrap.
Robertson, meanwhile, is looking to stage a TV comeback now that his consulting deal with Warner Bros. is up (it expired in December). Carlin, too, has been looking for his next move since exiting HBO about a year ago.
The two men worked together a decade ago at Warners. More recently, Collins helped HBO and Warners reap solid revenue from repeats of "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City," two shows many industry pros had deemed unsyndicatable because of their content issues.
Despite the firepower behind the project, industry insiders are already wondering whether Rosie 2.0 will be able to find a warm reception from the syndication marketplace.
Local stations don’t like controversy, nor serious topics. And many feel burned by the way O’Donnell’s first show suddenly shifted from a Mike Douglas-style variety show into something with a more political bent.
"It left an enormously bad feeling in many broadcasters’ mouths," one insider said.
Some believe O’Donnell and her new business partners would be best served finding a home base on primetime cable — and then try to syndicate the show to stations in daytime on an ad barter basis.
"The attributes that people in broadcast worry about make her an asset in cable," one industry pro said.
Indeed, O’Donnell did flirt with cable a few years ago, talking to MSNBC about a possible daily platform. Those talks didn’t pan out, though NBCU chief Jeff Zucker was so convinced O’Donnell still had audience appeal, he greenlit a primetime variety special starring the former stand-up comic.
That project, which was pretty much song-and-dance Rosie, flopped with both critics and viewers. NBC insiders at the time blamed O’Donnell for insisting on complete creative control and not allowing any input from the network.
If O’Donnell were to consider a cable window, several outlets might be interested.
NBCU’s Oxygen probably would welcome O’Donnell ability to draw attention, though O’Donnell — who turns 48 on Sunday — is a bit older than that network’s target audience of "live out loud" women under 35.
Turner-owned HLN, which now is mostly talk, might also be open to the notion of a nightly O’Donnell show — though parent Time Warner might dread the numerous PR headaches O’Donnell might cause with her rants against the government and Wall Street.
In syndication, meanwhile, some gossip columnists are already declaring O’Donnell as a possible "replacement" for the retiring-from-daytime Oprah Winfrey. But industry insiders argue there really isn’t as much room in the marketplace as many seem to think.
The ABC station group is unlikely to embrace O’Donnell following her syndication flame-out and her battle with Barbara Walters on "The View."
CBS stations are also fully booked. And NBC has already gotten behind both "Ellen" and a new show from Nate Berkus.
The NBC stations, who once made millions from O’Donnell’s show, might have an opening in 2011 if repeats of "The Real Housewives" franchise don’t play well (they bow this fall).
And Fox stations might have open real estate, too.
It’s hard to see Roger Ailes — who oversees the Fox stations group — welcoming the left-leaning O’Donnell with open arms. But Ailes is also an iconoclast who might get a kick out of defying the conventional wisdom and teaming up with someone seen as his political polar opposite.