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Published: Wednesday, 5/22/2002

Rosie O'Donnell makes her exit, leaves behind a suffering genre

BY DAVID BAUDER
AP TELEVISION WRITER

NEW YORK (AP) - Rosie O'Donnell is waving goodbye to the world of daytime talk. Unfortunately for television executives, much of the audience has already left.

Talk show ratings are plummeting, with daytime TV viewers increasingly likely to watch news networks, courtroom shows, relationship programs like TLC's "A Baby Story," or turn off the set entirely.

"Live with Regis and Kelly" is alone among the top 10 talk shows in not losing viewers this year. Jerry Springer, Rikki Lake, Montel Williams, even daytime queen Oprah Winfrey _ four years removed from her planned retirement _ have seen ratings drop.

O'Donnell's farewell show was planned Wednesday. Sally Jessy Raphael also called it quits, ending a two-decade run this week. Jenny Jones narrowly avoided cancellation. The E! Entertainment network even pulled the plug on "Talk Soup," a show based on funny clips from talk shows, as source material dried up.

Talk show ratings have been slipping for at least five years, accelerating lately, said Marc Berman, a television analyst for Media Week Online.

"The single-issue show as a genre has had a great run," said Jim Paratore, president of the syndicators Telepictures Productions. "It's grown a little tired and has a sameness to it and the audience is looking for something fresh. There's an opportunity over the next couple of years to breathe new life into the format."

Arguably, the last person to do that was O'Donnell.

When "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" began in 1996, she won fans instantly with her encyclopedic knowledge about, and love for, pop culture. She updated a format popularized by Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, and won her sixth straight Daytime Emmy award as best talk show host last week.

But even O'Donnell wasn't immune to the audience erosion; her viewership is down 19 percent this year. She has said she's leaving for personal reasons _ to spend more time with her family and do other things _ not because of ratings.

O'Donnell, who came out as a lesbian earlier this year, says in her just-published autobiography, "Find Me," that the audience doesn't see the real her on her show.

"I have had the most amazing six years of my life creatively," she said backstage at the Daytime Emmys last week. "I didn't want to continue doing it just because I could."

Paratore, whose company produces O'Donnell's show, recalls sitting in a hotel room with her before the program went on the air and she said, "I will do it for five years, be a big hit, and leave and go raise a family."

"I said, `from your lips to God's ears,'" Paratore said.

He got an extra year. That didn't stop him from begging for more.

O'Donnell describes in "Find Me" how an executive she identified only as "Jim" offered her an insane amount of money to renew her contract for two years, "more money than a human being could ever spend in one lifetime."

Her rejection was probably a wise choice, said one industry expert. "After awhile, if you don't want to do it anymore, it shows," said Bill Carroll, an analyst of the syndication market for Katz Television.

Now Paratore is looking for someone to fill O'Donnell's shoes.

Comic Caroline Rhea will replace O'Donnell next fall, and Telepictures has signed Ellen DeGeneres for a talk show to begin in autumn 2003. Among the personalities pushed by other companies is Wayne Brady, who had some success with a prime-time summer replacement variety hour and has even snagged O'Donnell's time slot at some stations.

"The biggest challenge for Wayne Brady and Caroline Rhea is not to duplicate Rosie O'Donnell, but to complement," Carroll said. "Syndicated TV requires almost an immediate embracing. If it doesn't happen, you're gone."

Roseanne, Martin Short, Dr. Laura and Howard Mandel are a few of the prominent failures over the past few years.

Nobody is holding their breath waiting for former President Clinton to start his own show, even though he recently met with NBC executives about the possibility. Sarah Ferguson is a potential future chat show host.

The most closely watched new show on the horizon will be from Dr. Phil McGraw, Winfrey's self-help guru. Not only does he have Winfrey's imprimatur, he's forbidden by contract from competing against her in the same time slot, meaning some of her audience will be available.

"It's as close to a spinoff from Oprah Winfrey as you're ever going to get," Carroll said.

Other new shows in the works feature medium James Van Praagh, "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh and the crew of "Good Day Live," a Los Angeles-based morning show.



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