Next on Katie: How to survive in the syndicated-TV jungle.
The daytime talk show hosted by former Today and CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric was the highest-rated new syndicated talker of last season. This season, Katie is averaging 2.3 million viewers through Sept. 29, ranking sixth among all syndicated talk shows and higher than any of the new entries.
But the program has never delivered the audience levels Disney/ABC's syndication arm promised to the TV stations that pay high fees to carry it. Although Katie finished last season with more viewers than NBCUniversal's new Steve Harvey, the comedian's show was considered a bigger success because it is far less expensive to produce and license, and it needed to satisfy much lower expectations. Harvey's ratings were higher than the programs it replaced, especially on NBC stations, and it has already been renewed through 2016.
Syndication executives who hear the complaints of unhappy TV station owners say that Katie is a goner. The show will make it to a third year only if Disney/ABC and Couric agree to take less money from the stations that carry it (she currently earns $10 million a year). With the soft ratings performance of this season's freshmen talk shows (like Bethenny), Disney/ABC wants to see if it can make a Couric renewal work financially, something that will have to be determined in a matter of weeks. "The sales team is currently in the marketplace having conversations with our station partners," the company says in a statement to TV Guide Magazine. "The viewer response has been great, and we've been very pleased with the creative changes and direction." According to a Disney/ABC insider, "It can go either way."
People close to Couric say money is less important to her than being happy with the final product. After some behind-the-scenes turmoil, including several executive producer changes, she is said to be pleased with the show's current mix of celebrity interviews, how-to info and serious conversation on more topical issues. But she hasn't decided if she wants to stick with the series; Couric has held conversations with Yahoo! about an online show, but that could be done as a supplement to her TV work.
If Katie doesn't make it to next season, ABC stations will need to find a replacement for the hour. Disney/ABC has shot a talk-show pilot with Academy Award-winning actress and comedian Mo'Nique, but an executive at the company says it's not being developed as a substitute for Katie and would likely be shopped to TV stations owned by Fox or Tribune. Also in the works for fall 2014: a talk show hosted by Meredith Vieira that's committed to NBC stations.
The less-than-stellar numbers of this year's new crop of talk shows illustrate how difficult it is to launch a program. So far this season, viewers have gravitated toward familiar names. The top three shows — Dr. Phil(3.8 million viewers), Ellen (3.5 million) and Live With Kelly & Michael (3.5 million) — are maintaining their audience levels from last year. Of the new contenders, The Queen Latifah Show is faring best (averaging 1.7 million) and is improving on the time-period ratings (compared to last year) among women ages 25 to 54, the group advertisers want to reach in daytime. "It's early in the game, but the numbers have been decent," says Bill Carroll, who advises TV stations for the Katz Media Group.
Decent enough to leave former Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel in the dust. After a promising test run last summer, Bethenny has delivered a disappointing 1.1 million viewers in its first few weeks. The show is competitive in Fox's large-market TV stations, but Middle America has yet to embrace reality TV's edgy Skinnygirl.