Saturday, June 04, 2011

General Hospital— Code Red!

ABC is placing a big bet on Katie Couric to fill Oprah Winfrey's shoes. The Walt Disney Co. network is putting the finishing touches on a deal with the former "Today" co-anchor for a syndicated talk show that draws on the template popularized by Ms. Winfrey, and is likely to announce the new program as early as Monday, according to people familiar with the negotiations. Ms. Couric's new job would bring one of TV's most recognized faces to daytime-TV as big turnover— notably Ms. Winfrey's exit— is throwing audience loyalties up for grabs. It caps months of talks with multiple media companies, and follows the end last month of her five-year anchor stint on CBS Corporation's "CBS Evening News."

Katie Couric is finalizing a deal with ABC to create her own syndicated talk show, and is likely to announce the program as early as Monday. Sam Schechner has details. As part of the new deal, ABC will distribute Ms. Couric's talk show to local TV stations, with an intended premiere in the fall of 2012, the people said. Ms. Couric would in the meantime have an on-air role at ABC News, they added.

The format for Ms. Couric's show is still under discussion, but it is likely to aim at least in part for the gap that has been left behind after Ms. Winfrey ended her two-and-a-half decade daytime run last month, some of the people familiar with the discussions said. The show could also incorporate elements of Ms. Couric's stint on "Today," where she was a co-anchor for 15 years, one of those people added. 

She began her broadcast journalism career at ABC News in 1979. "She'll be doing the big interviews. She'll be doing the heartfelt stories," another of those people said, calling the show "Oprah-esque." What does that mean? Oprah is a major brand!

Bringing aboard Ms. Couric, 54, represents a risk for ABC. The network is betting on a big— and expensive— name in an increasingly fragmented and competitive daytime TV landscape. Audiences for individual shows have been slowly shrinking for decades, as viewers flip to a growing number of entertainment options on cable and the Internet. Meanwhile multiple companies are angling to pick up the roughly 6.5 million viewers who watched Ms. Winfrey's show, on average, according to Nielsen Company "Judge Judy," distributed by CBS Corporation, has seen her ratings rise in recent months.

Time Warner Inc.'s syndication arm is distributing a new daytime show from CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. It also remains to be seen if Ms. Couric can bring with her the big audiences she had at "Today." At "CBS Evening News," she won some accolades for her coverage, but was unable to dig the show out of its perennial third-place finish among evening newscasts.

ABC, meanwhile, is replacing two ailing soap operas with less-expensive shows about food and weight loss in coming months. Its syndication arm must contend with the impending retirement of Regis Philbin, who has been a daytime fixture for decades. Already, the eight local ABC television stations that Disney owns have scrambled to fill the hole left by Ms. Winfrey, whose show they aired. Some have launched new local newscasts, with others to follow. Disney's syndication arm is making a big commitment to Ms. Couric. As part of the deal, Ms. Couric would own her show, allowing her to reap profits more directly, according to the people familiar with the negotiations. ABC will get a cut of distribution revenue, as well as production fees, one of those people said.

Disney would also guarantee $20 million in revenue for Ms. Couric from the program, although her overall earnings could exceed that based on the show's performance, some of the people familiar with the matter said. To make room for Ms. Couric, ABC is considering clearing an hour of time on stations it owns in the window between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m., according to people [like us] familiar with the discussions. But it remains unclear what shows it might scrap to make room for Ms. Couric, in part because her debut is more than a year away. Currently, ABC's 3:00 p.m. slot is generally occupied by its last remaining soap opera, "General Hospital," depending on the time zone. At 4:00 p.m., a slot often occupied by Ms. Winfrey, ABC's eight stations and other affiliates have been moving in some cases toward local news.

People familiar with deliberations at ABC said the network remains committed to "General Hospital," but could move its time slot, potentially replacing one of the new shows it has ordered to replace the other soaps. It is also possible local stations could replace their new newscasts with Ms. Couric, one of the people familiar with the negotiations [like UPBEAT Entertainment News] said.

By deciding to air Ms. Couric's show without deciding precisely what it will replace, ABC is shifting its daytime scheduling strategy to more closely mirror that in the evening hours, one of the people familiar with ABC's thinking said. TV networks routinely order more programs than they have time to air in primetime, tacitly acknowledging that each program will have to fight for its place on the schedule. The new program represents a homecoming of sorts for Ms Couric. People familiar with the matter say she is working on the program with Jeff Zucker, the former NBC Universal chief executive who was producer of "Today" in the era where Ms. Couric became known as "America's Sweetheart." But that was another era... not this era.

"General Hospital" fans, this is a "Code Red", you need to get out there and act now. Brian Frons is moving his "agenda" forward. But as we stated for the record weeks ago, he is risking a devoted audience for the "possibility" of a new audience. This is not the most "sound" thinking... in fact, it's a much bigger gamble than Frons himself can handle. He's rolling the dice expecting to be "on target" with his antiquated focus groups and reality television background. We're predicting a mess that Brian Frons can't possibly clean up on a good day... he is clueless and his ego is taking him to a place where money is scarce and unemployment lines are merciless. Chelsea Handler was "tweeting" like crazy about Katie Couric's deal less than a day ago... so... stay tuned folks!

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