With new shows debuting today, should Katie Couric or Ricki Lake even try to tap the Oprah magic?
UPDATE: Here's my NPR essay today on daytime shows which seem to be chasing the Holy Grail of Oprah.
She hobbled Sarah Palin with a simple question about newspapers and helped nurse millions of viewers through the most traumatic terrorist attack of a lifetime on 9/11.
So why in the world is onetime Today show and CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric jumping into the land of housewife makeovers and celebrity interviews with a new daytime TV show?
“I’m one of those people who is more than willing to put myself out there and try something new,” Couric said during a July press conference for her new talk show, Katie, which debuts today on WFTS-Ch. 28 and stations nationwide. “This was an exciting opportunity…to build something from scratch, get a blank canvas and to actually shape a program that tackles osme of thethings you think are important.”
Of course, Couric had a chance to do that six years ago, when she took over as anchor of the CBS Evening News after 15 years as a co-anchor on NBC’s popular morning show, Today. But her stint at CBS drew loads of criticism – despite the Palin interview – and some always figured it was just a matter of time before Couric would return to a softer TV format.
Hence, the debut of Katie. Developed and sold by Disney/ABC, the syndicated show seems aimed directly at the audience talk show queen Oprah Winfrey may have left on the table when she departed the syndicated TV world back in May 2011.
It’s got a theme song from Sheryl Crow and a segment spotlighting “women who should be famous.” Couric, 55, will tackle bucket list-style activities in a feature called You Only Live Once, also taking time to fulfill viewers’ fantasies for things they’d like to do before they die.
And her early guest list celebrates high profile “women who are reinventing themselves,” from Crow and Jessica Simpson to Jennifer Lopez, divorcing supermodel Heidi Klum, Susan Sarandon and Barbra Streisand.
“I’ve experienced a lot of things in my own life that I think we’ll be talking about,” said Couric, noting that figures show her audience is likely to be 80 percent female. “When I did the Evening News I didn’t have an opportunity to show these sides of myself. I have to refamiliarize the audience with the kind of person I was on the Today show.”
To use industry-speak, it’s a typical “personality-driven” talk show, using the big name host to serve both as attraction to and surrogate for the audience you hope will show up. Backed by her former executive producer on Today, ex-NBC honcho Jeff Zucker, Couric has taken more than a year to develop a program which fits her image like a well-tailored pantsuit.
But what if Oprah’s audience doesn’t exist anymore? What if, as when Johnny Carson left the Tonight Show, Winfrey leaving daytime changed the game so much no one can grab her audience back again?
“I don’t feel like I’m being served in daytime right now,” insisted Ricki Lake, who will debut her own self-titled talk show today, hoping to reach the women who may have watched her first talk show, a youth-centered Oprah-style program which aired from 1993 to 2004.
“My training before my old show was just being a fan of Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey and Sally Jesse (Raphael),” said Lake, 43, noting her new swing at the genre will zero in on women between the ages of 25 and 54 like, well, her. “(Back then) I honestly didn’t not know what I was doing. I was just a fan of Oprah’s…coming from a place where it was (a young generation’s) voice.”
My theory: talk show hosts such as Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Dr. Phil McGraw and even promising newcomer Steve Harvey sometimes succeed by knowing how to attract an audience they really don’t reflect.
They’re either not, female, not parents, not married or not heterosexual; gifted with an ability to perhaps see their target audience more clearly, because they’re not really part of it.
Couric and Lake may test that idea, however, offering shows attempting to draw an audience by reflecting their own lives right back at them – with the hosts presented as the ultimate example.
“On the Today show…I think people responded and related to me, so I hope they’ll feel the same about me in daytime,” said Couric. “I hope people will appreciate a smart conversation.”