Bertrand on Brand
Life After Oprah | Daytime Talk and the Cult of Personality
When Oprah shut down her show on May 25, 2011, there was a mad scramble to try to replace her. At first, nobody dared threaten her considerable success at making audiences feel like she was their own personal guru.
The fact is, just about anyone with a modicum of intelligence can host a show but remarkably few can do it charismatically and insightfully. Whether you liked her or not, that was indeed Oprah’s gift.
She methodically and almost imperceptible made herself the reason we watched. As Britain’s Independent eulogized at the close of her reign as the Queen of Talk:
“Over the years, fans have watched Oprah come to turns with her impoverished and abusive childhood. They have seen her confront taboos such as sex abuse, addiction and infidelity, and reunite with long-lost family members. They have watched her waistline expand and contract. And they have heard her spout endless psycho-babble in an effort to show viewers how to ‘Live your best life’.”
There is O.B. (Oprah Before) and O.A. Before, she delivered standard tabloid fare, but that concept of living your best life became Oprah’s “New Brand.” She had at last found her way out of the increasingly vulgar and sensationalistic daytime world of talk TV (Hello, Geraldo and Maury), and created a new and very profitable brand of talk where she was pastor in the Church of the Aha Moment.
That’s a tough act to follow, which is why this coming Monday, September 10 at 3PM, all eyes are on Ricki Lake and Katie Couric who each will premiere their own “real talk” programs. They are followed by Survivor’s Jeff Probst (same day and time) and Steve Harvey, whose show launched last Tuesday.
Hot on their heels but hardly any threat at all is Marie Osmond, whose second attempt at talk, Marie! will replace Martha Stewart on the Hallmark Channel come October 1.
Katie Couric on the set of her new show launching September 10. The reportedly $80M program is causing considerable nail-biting on the part of Disney-ABC executives.
“Shows are launched every year and shows fail every year, because they’re done the same way,” says Stephen Brown, 20th Century Fox head of programming and development. “It really comes down to a cult of personality. If you think of the different talent on air, at their heart if they are successful, they’re a brand or experience.”
Television is always hungry for new brands — or new ways to position old brands, and people brands are always hot. Even a Reality TV person like Bethenny Frankel can be hot (and she is, her show’s been renewed.) Furthermore talk is cheap, certainly cheaper than producing a drama or comedy series.
Lake is in old brand with some compelling potential as a new brand. Similarly, Couric is an old(er) brand with a great pedigree but perhaps more questionable potential as a talk show host, regardless of her work on Today. Her bailiwick has always been the hard-hitting one-on-one interview. Couric’s experience interacting with an audience has been limited to shaking hands with tourists at Rockefeller Plaza on Today.
“I have questions about whether Katie still has that ‘girl next door’ ability,” says Donna Somerville, a former talk show producer who worked on Donahue and the Joan Rivers Show. “She’s far from the girl next door these days, and more of a celebrity.”
The secret to a successful talk show brand is that the host appears to be Everyman (or woman, as the case may be.) It’s what made Oprah seem so “real” and what made Ricki Lake seem like the approachable “home girl.” The fact that both have struggled with weight issues more than likely helped make them less threatening to their female target audience seeking a television “companion.”
Lake’s original show featured such over-the-top topics as “Ricki’s Hootchie Test,” as seen in this clip.
In the early 1990’s, Ricki Lake’s magic was that she filled the void for a burgeoning youth audience, taking on subjects like “Mom You Think I Look Like A Sideshow Freak” as seriously as Couric (who at that time was on the Today Show) took wild guesses at what the word, “internet” meant (worth watching, by the way.)
Interestingly, men have largely been unsuccessful in the role of daytime confidant except for Phil Donahue, whose cult of personality is legendary and who pioneered the concept of “confessional” television.
“Phil’s success was almost entirely based on his personality,” says Donna Somerville, a former Donahue producer and veteran of other shows including the Joan Rivers Show. “Phil is innately curious about people, and he had a heart for his audience, at a time when women at home didn’t feel like they were heard. He just knew how to relate to people on a very human level.”
Phil Donahue’s success as the consummate TV host is perhaps only rivaled by Oprah. The difference: Donahue’s more humble approach compared with Winfrey’s constant sermonizing.
20th Century Fox is banking on Lake’s old (and now older) audience being able to reconnect with her and her evolved brand story — while picking up a new audience tired of Ellen Degeneres’ now tedious variety show. “Before, Ricki was 24. Now she’s 43, been through a divorce, did online dating, is remarried, has two kids and a blended family – in other words she’s had this very accessible, relatable life that everybody else has had.”
Relatable. The cult of personality is as much about the branded persona as it is about an audience being able to relate – or believe they can relate – with the host.
It was certainly a point that both Ricki Lake and Katie Couric underscored at last July’s LA press tour.
“I’ve experienced a lot of things in my own life that I think we’ll be talking about,” said Couric, in answer to a reporter’s query. “Having gone through losing a spouse at an early age and having to learn all about cancer, and having to navigate dating in your 40s and 50s. Right now, I am caring for my mother who’s 89, after my dad passed away last summer. So I feel like a lot of the things that I am going through in my life are relatable.”
Ricki Lake on the set of her new show, premiering September 10. In the 1990′s her ordinariness and personal story were critical factors in her success as a talk show host. But is she still relevant?
Lake similarly summons life’s hardships as the core of her qualifications. “I’ve made mistakes. I’ve been 260 pounds. I’ve been 120 pounds. But I do think there’s a relatability and there’s a trust that I’ve built with the work I’ve done.”
Lake’s competitive advantage may just be her relative ordinariness in comparison with Couric’s hard news and serious journalist pretensions. Lake and her team are also making innovative (for television) use of new media and grassroots organizing with which to further extend the Ricki Lake brand.
Ricki Lake Show producers are using social media and localized Ricki clubs in effort to extend the brand’s reach. “The offline community becomes a natural extension of the online community.”
“They can get together under this ‘Friends of Ricki’ umbrella and become more committed to the brand and the experience. The offline community becomes a natural extension of the online community,” says Brown, who was instrumental in the development of the new show.
All this emphasis on the hosts might make you think the content takes a backseat. For her first show, Couric’s pulling out the big guns and bringing on Jessica Simpson and Sheryl Crow, while Lake is doing an entire program featuring born-again virgins. “It sparks your interest, doesn’t it?” asked Lake to a roomful of journalists,“… a little?”
“At the end of the day, who do you want to spend the hour with,” says Brown. “I think viewers will make that decision, certainly within the first month of the show.”