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Tough Talk: Can Katie Couric Claim Oprah Winfrey’s Old Daytime Crown?

Katie Couric is the leading contender in the next wave of daytime talk show hosts — but even she isn’t expected to bring in Oprah ratings of old

Ten months after Oprah Winfrey signed off her long-running syndicated daytime talk show, the TV industry is still trying to fill the vacuum.

There is no shortage of contenders – or shows – trying to reclaim the daytime talk show crown from Winfrey, who has her hands full running her OWN network. But it’s not easy to dominate daytime programming in this day of splintered media outlets, any more than it is to launch a new network.

Just ask Winfrey: On Monday, she laid off 30 staffers after cancelling Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show on Friday.

Also read: Oprah's OWN Laying Off 30 in Restructuring

All eyes are now on Katie Couric, who launches “Katie” in the fall, to see if she will have more luck than CNN star anchor Anderson Cooper in the daytime talk show arena. She is one of several contenders to launch next season, including “Survivor” host Jeff Probst, “Family Feud” host Steve Harvey and talk-show vet Ricki Lake.

"Katie Couric will probably do better — I think she's a little more versatile, and she's well-known," Brad Adgate, Senior VP Research at Horizon Media, told TheWrap. He also suggests that Couric might have an additional initial edge as the 2012 election season kicks into high gear, given her run as “CBS Evening News” anchor and “The Today Show” before that.

Although, he noted, Couric's fellow former “Today Show” host Jane Pauley didn’t last long with "The Jane Pauley Show," her bid for daytime talk glory.

As the ghosts of talk show hosts past can attest, it’s not easy to succeed – regardless of the time of day. Programmers are increasingly gravitating towards daytime talk shows because they’re cheaper to produce than soap operas or other scripted fare. The right host, or mix of hosts, can cut through the media noise.

"It's not an expensive proposition — it's relatively inexpensive to produce, and I don't think that's going to go away," Adgate said.

Even so, with the pie being split so many ways, it's going to be tough for any one particular talk show to dominate the way "Oprah" did  in her 25 year run — or even come close to that. Women 25-54, a key demo for daytime talk, continue to work outside the home. And those women who do stay home are likely to be of the "helicopter parents" variety, who "are more interested in monitoring what their children are watching" than developing their own viewing loyalties, Adgate said.

Also read: Oprah Winfrey to Fans: 'You Have Been the Love of My Life' (Video)

ABC replaced two soap operas with talk shows the past year: Culinary-oriented talker "The Chew" bowed in September as a replacement for the axed "All My Children." "The Revolution," featuring "Project Runway" guru Tim Gunn, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" dream-fulfiller Ty Pennington and celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak, replaced axed soap "One Life to Live" in January.

Already, there are signs of oversaturation. Cooper’s syndicated daytime show “Anderson” debuted in September and has never really gotten any traction. His show averaged a little under 2 million viewers for the week of Feb. 20 – 26, the most recent ratings available. His co-executive producer Jim Murphy departed in late January, apparently to return to the news side.

Also read: 'Anderson' Executive Producer Jim Murphy Steps Down

A fall 2012 launch for a syndicated series starring "Real Housewives" alum Bethenny Frankel was kiboshed after it became apparent that Frankel would be entering a very competitive field. (The show will now receive a six-week trial run this summer on Fox TV stations.) And in December, Sony Pictures Television and Harpo Studios decided to put "The Nate Berkus Show" out of its misery after its second season of ho-hum numbers.

O'Donnell, a successful daytime host in the 1990s, couldn’t make a go of it during her short stint on OWN. It may not have helped that she was on in the early evening rather than in daytime, but in this fractured media universe, all bets are off.

New daytime talk shows must also vie with standbys “The View,” “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and the newly christened “Live! With Kelly” and CBS’s relatively recent entry “The Talk.”

The upcoming slew of new talk-show hosts are, relatively speaking, safe bets, consisting of faces and names who've already connected with television audiences.

"These people are all well-known; these are all personalities that viewers know," Adgate said.

Couric has promised "smart conversation” in “Katie,” which debuts Sept. 10.  She said stories will run the gamut from serious to “fun, popular culture stories.”

Also read: From Katie Couric to Matt Lauer: Why Don’t Anchors Want the Job Anymore?

The show will be executive produced by former NBCUniversal president Jeff Zucker, a fellow “Today Show” alum.

20th Television, which is producing Lake’s offering, is banking on her familiarity with audiences. Paul Franklin, executive vice president and general sales manager, broadcast of 20th Television told TheWrap that she’s "already presold to the marketplace."

"Ricki is the women's girlfriend, if you will," he said. "They've got their girlfriend back."

Franklin contends that daytime is basically up for grabs. "Oprah is gone, Regis is retired,” he said. “Daytime is going through a metamorphosis."

"I think it helps, too, that the soap operas are going away," Franklin added. "The soap operas have been on for 40, 50 years and people are saying, 'What are we going to watch now?'"

He's not harboring any illusions that Lake is poised to take over Winfrey's former massive audience.

"It's hard to say there will ever be another Oprah," Franklin said.

Adgate doesn’t think anyone can capture Winfrey's former ratings at this point.

"I don't think that's a reasonable expectation. I think that these shows are going to face a lot of stiff competition," Adgate said. "If you can get three million viewers, that's a hit."

John Nogawski, president of CBS Television Distribution, argues that all the changes in daytime have cleared the way for Probst’s new show, which his company is distributing. 

"There were a number of changes in the marketplace from Oprah's departure to some lower-rated shows which we anticipated would be canceled, so we knew stations would have holes to fill in their schedules," Nogawski told TheWrap. "That makes it a good time to strike."

He points out that, “whether it's primetime, cable or daytime, there's always competition, so when the right idea and personality present themselves like they did with Jeff, then we seize the opportunity."

He argues that “The Survivor” host will bring a different perspective to the daytime audience than current hosts. Nor does he accept that the audience for daytime talk is in danger of dwindling.

"We certainly don't think so or else we wouldn't be launching a new show," he told TheWrap. "If it's the right show with the right host, the audience will come."

And if not? Perhaps a  moment of silence will be in order.