THE DOCTOR IS IN
It turns out the prescription for the ailing syndication business was tough love — and lots of it. Dr. Phil McGraw’s eponymous talk show beat all the competition except for The Oprah Winfrey Show in its premiere week — making it the first hit since Rosie O’Donnell burst on the scene in 1996. (Phil had a good pedigree from the get-go — it’s created by Oprah’s company, Harpo.) So strong was Dr. Phil’s performance — a 4.4 national household rating, second only to Oprah’s 6.0 and light-years ahead of The John Walsh Show at 1.1 — that producers are finally feeling bullish about the future of daytime chat. (Next up for fall 2003: yakkers featuring Ellen DeGeneres, Sarah Ferguson, and the duo of ABC News’ Jack Ford and actress Alexandra Wentworth.) Even Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution Executive VP Jim Paratore — who has seen the ratings for his studio’s The Caroline Rhea Show sink to a 1.1 — is feeling the love for Dr. Phil. ”We’ve allowed the audience to be siphoned away to cable, so when you look at the business today, a two household rating has become the threshold of success,” says Paratore. ”Dr. Phil proves that you can create a quality show that the audience will find.” Oprah must be so proud.
AMATEUR (HALF) HOUR
Now, this makes perfect sense: If the talent pool is going dry for talk-show hosts in Hollywood, why not search a little town called Valparaiso, Ind., for the next Johnny Carson? E! thinks it may have a diamond in the rough with Michael Essany, a 19-year-old college freshman who tapes his own public-access talk show from his parents’ living-room couch. In January, the cabler will launch a making-of series about Essany’s homegrown hit, which includes mom Tina as the director-stylist and dad Ernie as a stage manager and actor in the occasional skit. What keeps Essany’s program from being more than public-access filler is that the teen has scored some surprising guest coups, including ”in-studio” interviews with the Bacon Brothers, Jeff Foxworthy, and Jewel, as well as on-camera phoners with Ray Romano, Gerald Ford, and Mario Cuomo. As a result, some 200,000 homes in the Midwest have been known to watch Essany, who’s been hosting the yakker (complete with dubbed- in applause and laughter) since age 15. ”We are all about celebrities at E!, and the charming thing about Michael is that he’s certainly a fan of the entertainment business,” says E! exec VP of entertainment Mark Sonnenberg, who’s committed to six episodes of Essany’s show. ”But the difference between him and other fans is that he’s actually living out his dream. He’s just doing it in Valparaiso.” Jay Leno, be afraid. Be very afraid.
AND SO ON… She ain’t down yet. Roseanne — whose last attempt at television was a failed daytime talk show in 2000 — wants another chance at prime time. Sources say the comedian is peddling a hybrid cooking/reality show to the broadcast networks…. Speaking of comeback kids, Christopher Titus (whose comedy Titus lasted three seasons on Fox) is hoping for a return to prime time by way of NBC. The Peacock is considering his buddy-comedy script about two bounty hunters…. Bill Maher is plotting his next move. He says viewers should expect his return to the small screen next season — though he won’t elaborate on exactly what he’ll be doing: ”It’s just a premonition I have.” Gotcha. (Additional reporting by Nick White)