"Daytime viewers are one of the most loyal, so when you bring them something that they like, they're going to show up," NBCU's Tracie Wilson says
How big of a deal was Kelly Clarkson's strong debut as a daytime talk show host last season? Even her competitors are celebrating the former "American Idol" contestant's success in syndication.
Clarkson, whose self-titled show is distributed by NBCUniversal, last fall had the best debut since 2012 for a daytime talker, but she wasn't the only daytime host to have a good freshman year. Former "Today" host Tamron Hall also experienced high ratings in her first year and the space is set to get a new entrant on Monday when Drew Barrymore premieres her own self-titled show on CBS stations. Nick Cannon will also launch his own talk show on Fox stations next fall.
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"Kelly, coming out a year ago and doing well, I think that's a good thing for us," Steven LoCasio, president of CBS Television Distribution, told TheWrap. "Because it just shows that the right format and the right host will work."
It was only a few years ago that the daytime talk show space appeared to be running out of steam. Since the days of "Oprah" and "Dr. Phil," the daypart had struggled to find new hits, with Katie Couric, Meredith Vieira, Harry Connick Jr., Anderson Cooper and Queen Latifah all trying, and failing, to make much of a dent.
Clarkson's first year landed her in No. 4 spot among all syndicated daytime talk shows with a 1.2 rating, ahead of stalwarts "Rachel Ray" and "Maury." Hall, meanwhile, finished in the top 10 and tied with "Wendy Williams" for her first year with an 0.9 rating. "Dr. Phil" (2.2 rating) and "Live with Kelly and Ryan" (2.0) remain the overwhelming leaders in the space.
"The audience found it," says Tracie Wilson, executive vice president, creative affairs for NBCUniversal TV Distribution. "I think it was really good, not only for us, but for syndication to have something break through and kind of make a mark. And now with Drew [Barrymore] launching, I think other companies are taking a big swing the way we did last year."
Despite increased competition from streaming and the erosion of the pay-TV ecosystem, the syndication space remains a billion-dollar business. In 2019, advertisers paid more than $4 billion on syndicated shows, according to data from ad-tracking firm Kantar. In 2020, it's pacing slightly ahead through the first half of the year, with $2.16 billion in ad sales, compared to $2.14 billion through the first half of 2019.
"I think daytime is alive and well, and I think that's why there's been a little bit of a resurgence in recent years for people coming back to this daypart," Bill Burton, senior vice president and head of daytime, sports and syndicated development and production for ABC Entertainment, which produces "Tamron Hall," said. "I think that's good for broadcasting and good for the business. There's certainly viewers there."
Wilson points out that it wasn't only "Kelly Clarkson" that NBCUniversal successfully launched last year. Jerry Springer, fresh off his run on "The Jerry Springer Show" returned with a courtroom show, "Judge Jerry," which had the best debut in the court TV genre in five years. For her part, Wilson isn't surprised that the past few years has seen a resurgence in the talk show space noting that it's usually pretty cyclical. The space just happens to be in one of those peak years after a half-decade of valleys.
"I remember feeling this way, truthfully, when 'Dr. Phil' launched (in 2002)," she says. "There hadn't been hits for a while. And then 'Dr. Phil' came out and it was sort of like, wow, this is good for everyone. Because syndication needed it. And I think Kelly is serving that purpose now."
While "Dr. Phil" doesn't appear to be ending anytime soon, as it's currently renewed through the 2022-23 season, the other longrunning talker, "Ellen Degeneres," may only have two more seasons left. Her current deal is through 2022, and she has previously admitted she's considered retirement Her show has also been the subject of controversy this summer, as accusations were leveled against her producers for a toxic workplace and sexual misconduct.
The space was due for some fresh faces.
Nobody TheWrap interviewed would identify a specific reason for why Kelly Clarkson and Tamron Hall managed to break through last season, noting that as with primetime, it sometimes takes a bit of luck. Wilson argued it's "not only the right host, but the right producer." Clarkson's show was led by Alex Duda, a longtime talk show and pop culture veteran whose worked on shows with Steve Harvey and Tyra Banks. Hall's show was launched by "The View" co-creator Bill Geddie, who left midway through the first season; "View" co-executive producer Candi Carter took over.
"Our daytime talk show evolved from the phenomenal format of Oprah and Phil Donahue and even Dr. Phil, who's still on. It's evolved, but the game remains intact," Hall says.
One other aspect that's probably the most different is one that Wilson admits was lacking a few years ago, when NBCU's "Harry" only lasted two seasons: The realization that the show isn't confined to the one-hour block on TV each day.
"When we launched Kelly, we not only had our strategy for what the show was going to be, but we also had our digital strategy right alongside with it. They go hand-in-hand now," Wilson said. "The talent is connecting with the viewer in a very different way. And people expect that now you can't leave digital." When asked if a few years ago that element was missing, Wilson admits, "I think it was."
Clarkson opens each show with her popular "Kellyoke" segment, in which she performs a song that an audience member has a special connection to, which continued during the pandemic when the show was forced to go remote and perform without an live audience. Monday's second season premiere of "Tamron Hall" features an interview with disgraced former Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who was caught in the middle of a drug overdose scandal in March that led to him to enter rehab and therapy. After the interview airs, Hall will host a live aftershow on Instagram. "We focus on there being a synergy at all times between what you see on air you see on social media," Hall says.
"I think if you go back in time -- and I've been in this business a long time -- there was digital, and then there was television," adds Burton. Who's doing digital and who's doing TV at a local television station? Those days are long gone."
The streaming space, led by Netflix, has upended the model in such a way that many legacy companies, including Disney and NBCUniversal, have reworked themselves around the direct-to-consumer segment. At the same time, the pay-TV ecosystem is hemorrhaging subscribers.
By the midpoint of 2020, cable and satellite providers had lost 3.68 million customers -- easily putting the industry on pace to lap last year's record total of 4.9 million subscribers. (The top TV providers, representing 95% of the U.S. market, accounted for 82.4 million subscribers at the end of the second quarter, according to data compiled by Leichtman Research Group.)
But when it comes to daytime, those in the space don't see streaming encroaching just yet.
"Look at our first week [back] lineup. Where is Netflix airing Andrew Gillum? Or Melissa Etheridge?" argues Hall. "I remember getting into this business, when I was told that network news was dying, and that I should set my sights on something else. Because the network news and the evening news would no longer be."
LoCasio argues that, unlike streaming, daytime is appointment viewing. The two businesses operate in different viewing habits and as live events, most notably sports, have proven, appointment viewing still commands people's attention.
"People don't binge our shows. They watch on a daily basis," LoCasio says. "There are loyal avid viewers out there who are only in that space."
For Wilson, she's heard the talk that broadcast television was on its way out for years. "I feel like that conversations been actually happening for a long time. I'm not really worried," she said. "The daytime viewers are one of the most loyal, so when you bring them something that they like, they're going to show up a few times a week. Content is king, and when you when you develop a good product, the audience finds it."