Wednesday, September 14, 2011

An Inauspicious Debut

This is the time of year when TV stations roll out their new syndicated offerings--those programs (mostly talk shows) that air in the morning and late afternoon, and provide lead-in audiences for local news shows. Since news is a critical revenue source, it's important to have a lead-in program that actually delivers an audience.

The latest crop of syndicated shows are making their debut this week, and at least one high-profile project is stumbling out of the gate. We refer to the daytime talk fest hosted by CNN star Anderson Cooper. Its debut on Monday drew the second-lowest rating of any daytime talk show (only Wendy Williams had a smaller audience). Meanwhile, some of Cooper's competitors (most notably, Dr. Oz) posted significant audience gains.

Obviously, one day does not make an entire season, and there's still time for the audience to "discover" Mr. Cooper's program, as TV execs like to say. But it's clearly not what Warner Bros. television had in mind when they approved this project and signed Cooper to a lucrative contract.

Still, the early results aren't exactly surprising, considering the host's track record at CNN. Mr. Cooper has anchored an evening news program at the cable network for years, and his broadcast runs far behind the competition on Fox News Channel and is occasionally bested by MSNBC as well. In other words, Cooper hasn't exactly been an audience magnet in cable news; so why did the folks at Warner Bros. think he'd fare any better in the cutthroat world of syndicated TV?

But in the parallel universe of the MSM, performance is sometimes secondary to your connections. Mr. Cooper became a household name at CNN, a network synonymous with the kind of news coverage that turns off millions of viewers. But since TV executives run in the same circles as media personalities (and hold the same world view), giving Anderson Cooper at daytime show was a perfectly logical step. The real surprise (from their perspective) is why most Americans are ignoring it.

This much is certain: local stations that bought the Cooper program won't wait indefinitely for ratings to improve. If audience levels remain low, look for local stations to move the show to a graveyard time slot (1 am or later), before bailing on the project entirely. With millions of dollars of revenue at stake, particularly in the larger markets, local affiliates can't afford to stick with a turkey.

Cooper's slow start also offers a cautionary tale for other programmers already working on the next generation of celebrity talk shows. Katie Couric's daytime program will start airing next September and it's already being touted as a sure-fire winner. After all, Ms. Couric was the Queen of Morning TV for more than a decade, and the viewers who watched her on "Today" are bound to flock to her talk show. Never mind that she was a total flop as anchor of the "CBS Evening News," and she has the same type of media pedigree as Anderson Cooper. Sounds like a can't-miss ratings bonanza to us.

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