The race to replace Regis is on. Now that Regis Philbin has given a firm date for his last appearance on Live with Regis and Kelly — Nov. 18 — the show is starting to line up a list of potential new hosts to sit next to Kelly Ripa.
According to executive producer Michael Gelman, the show already has a transition plan in place — starting with the new, temporary title Live with Kelly, which will be used until that new co-host is found. That's one of a handful of tweaks will be implemented in the wake of Philbin's exit. "We'll change things up a bit," Gelman tells TV Guide Magazine. "We want to fit Kelly's personality."
Beyond that, Gelman and Live plan to announce a first round of guest hosts in the coming weeks. Some of those hosts will be trying out for the Regis gig, while others (particularly actors already committed to busy schedules) will be there purely for fun. Among the expected upcoming guest hosts: Extra and H8R host Mario Lopez.
"We'll do what I call 'dating,'" Gelman says. "We'll have different guys come and we'll try them out, check their chemistry. We'll see how they work with the format and how the audience reacts. And it's easier to get audience feedback in this day and age with social media."
Producers took their time in 2000 to find Kathie Lee Gifford's replacement next to Philbin — and surprised everyone with then-All My Children star Ripa, who was not well-known beyond soap fans. With Philbin's departure, they plan to emulate that approach. "We're trying not to pigeonhole ourselves," Gelman says. "We're trying to think out of the box and keep our mind open. It could be a woman, or a person you might not have even heard of. We don't know who it's going to be."
Despite earlier reports of frontrunners such as Ryan Seacrest, Bravo's Andy Cohen and Kelly Ripa's husband, Mark Consuelos, Gelman says there's no short list yet. "So much has already been printed, and a lot of it is laughable," he says. "Just as when we were looking to replace Kathie Lee, everyone was throwing names out there, but no one even had Kelly's name."
Live with Kelly will likely go with guest hosts for months as they test out every contender's interactions with Ripa. Producers would like to have a final decision in time for either February or May sweeps. "We'll try to be patient and let things simmer," Gelman says. "We're not looking to commit to someone and then have them be gone six months later. If (that timetable) were to work out, that would be great. But we'll make the right decision at the right time."
Among the rumored contenders, Consuelos is unlikely, as he has already publicly dismissed the idea — and also, insiders believe that Disney probably won't want to risk having a married couple as host. "Mark has basically in the press ruled himself out," Gelman says. "But I'm not ruling anyone out or commenting on specific people."
Meanwhile, Seacrest's many jobs keep him tied up. And given his stature as an exec inside NBCUniversal, Cohen is also a long shot, even though he's a friend of Ripa.
Anderson Cooper was considered a frontrunner until he landed his own talk show, Anderson, which launched this week. "Anderson would have been the guy," says one agent. "But Time Warner was afraid to lose him." Cooper ended up signing a new pact in 2010 that included both a syndicated program for Warner Bros. and Telepictures, and also extended his relationship with CNN via a new multi-year deal. (Those companies are all a part of Time Warner.)
Jeff Probst would also be considered a top contender, except that he is also plotting his own syndicated show for 2012. (A Probst syndicated show has not yet been cleared by TV stations, however.) Tom Bergeron, another popular name, is committed to hosting Dancing with the Stars in Los Angeles for much of the year — making it difficult to juggle the full-time Live gig in New York.
That leaves a wide-open field. All sorts of possibilities are out there: Lopez; Entertainment Tonight's Mark Steines; Donnie Osmond; soap star Cameron Mathison; HGTV host Carter Oosterhouse; and Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs), just to name a few. But those are names being suggested by agents — and there's no indication that any of them have traction with the show's producers.
There may also be lesser-known local TV hosts in the mix. "A couple of months ago I would have assumed that they were going for a marquee name, and they still might," says one agent. "But this is a job that has to be someone with live talk experience. And most actors are not trained to do that. Comedians are good. But there's also a opportunity for the right up-and-coming talent to have a shot at this... I do feel someone could come in and just surprise us. Maybe it's a country music singer that melts everyone's hearts."
Gelman notes that there are plenty of places to mine for potential hosts. "It used to just be local TV," he says. "But now there are actors, people who do reality shows, entertainers, singers, sports broadcasters, news broadcasters, entertainment broadcasters," all willing to host such a show. "It would be great to have someone who has some real entertaining abilities and someone who has the skill to come on the air, be natural and have great chemistry with Kelly."
Besides Gelman and Ripa, executive in charge of production Art Moore and Disney execs will also likely weigh in on the decision. There's another reason why producers aren't in a rush: The 2000 search to replace Gifford was a ratings bonanza for Live, and everyone expects it to be the same this time too.
Even if their clients don't end up with the Regis gig, agents are also excited about the prospect of exposing their hosts on Live opposite Ripa. Several guest hosts who tried out to replace Kathie Lee Gifford didn't get the spot, but used it as a launch pad to create their own talk show.
The switch from Kathie Lee Gifford to Kelly Ripa is still seen as one of the most successful TV transitions of all time. It's usually not that easy, and Live producers have their work cut out for them. "We lost Regis, Larry King and Oprah as hosts this year," says an agent. "But America doesn't like change."
For Gelman, he's juggling the search to replace Philbin while at the same time putting together a grand farewell for the host, who has been the fixture on Live for nearly 30 years. "People feel this is a big loss," Gelman says. "But at the same time they're giving us the benefit of the doubt. The show has really been a part of pop culture. And it will survive."
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