It's Still Early for 'Chelsea Lately'

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NEW YORK ( -- With a crop of shows making their debuts on cable and the fall season right around the corner, Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg casts a critical eye on some of TV's new and continuing series to help marketers determine which may prove to be the best showcases for their ads and products.
Photo: E!

Chelsea Handler

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"Chelsea Lately"

Network: E!

What you'll see: Who needs celebrities to put on a celebrity-driven talk show? Not Chelsea Handler, whose producers must spend all day surfing gossip blogs and looking at viral video so this husky-voiced comedienne and her three F-list panelists of the day can spend eight or so minutes chatting about the latest Hollywood weirdness. Roseanne Barr urinating? Blogging while drunk? Britney Spears' latest "uh-oh"? All get their moments in the spotlight on "Chelsea Lately" in a freewheeling roundup that breezily moves from topic to topic to topic. You have time to catch your breath only when the show breaks for a few words from the sponsors.

Ms. Handler then proceeds to interview a guest, answer questions from the audience or feature a taped segment of some of her crazy antics. Recent couch-sitters have included "Entourage" player Rex Lee, Poison lead singer Bret Michaels and porn star Tera Patrick. The people from the crowd who ask questions seem like they would do just as well on the unemployment line as they do sitting in front of her cameras (come to think of it, maybe that's how they got time to sit in on the show in the first place).

The taped segments are the show's saving grace. When Chelsea visits a tattoo parlor or takes a workout class for mothers after birth, she's crude but funny and worth getting to know. If only she were as loose and mouthy during the other parts of the program. She ought to develop more of a sense of the absurd and be amused by the conversation, not take it so seriously.

While we're offering advice: Producers must get rid of "Chuy," Ms. Handler's diminutive Latino sidekick. He's weird and adds little to the proceedings. As the talk show continues, it would be great if Chelsea became more outspoken, more ruffled, more devil-may-care. But she's getting her feet wet in a new format, and -- based on several nights of viewing -- her nervousness and formality seem to be on the verge of ebbing away. A few B- or even C-list bookings wouldn't hurt either.

When you'll see it: Mondays through Fridays at 11:30 p.m. on E! ("Chelsea Lately" launched July 16).

What's at stake: E! is trying to add more pizzazz to its late-night programming block, which just hasn't been the same since those TV broadcasts of Howard Stern's radio show went off the air. Executives at the cable channel believe that Ms. Handler can stand out during a time period when lots of other outlets are showing repeats of long-defunct programs, said Suzanne Kohl, E!'s exec VP-marketing and communications. The show could even stand as an alternative to some of the more-established late-night programs, which can skew somewhat older, she said. With its mix of reality programs about Playboy Playmates and tanning salons, it's fair to say E! aims squarely at viewers aged 18 to 34. The question is whether viewers want Chelsea's grab bag of goofy comedy and bloggerol or the sarcasm and sharper wit they can get from "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central.

Who's onboard? Advertisers spotted during recent viewings of the program included, Cold Stone Creamery, Nike, Subway and Suave. More intriguing were appearances of goods aimed at mothers with young children, such as Pediasure, and products for single women, such as Bayer's Yaz birth-control pill. Based on the ads alone, it seems the program attracts marketers seeking the single girl on the go or the newly married young bride.

Insert product here? Ms. Kohl says E! has not begun talking about product-placement opportunities, focusing instead on launching the show. If E! can make "Chelsea" into a hit, she said, "advertisers will want to come along for the ride." Sounds like people with products to place ought to stay tuned -- it's easy to imagine a certain brand of soda or water sitting on the table amidst Handler's fast-talking panel.

Your ad here? If you skew young or are young at heart, "Chelsea Lately" sounds like it might target your sweet spot. But don't forget -- this is late night. Marketers with a conservative bent will no doubt shy away from talk of bodily functions and celebrities' drug-fueled wackiness. This is a cute show that could have a chatty edge a subsection of marketers will find too sharp.

Media buyer's verdict: E! does "push the envelope, but no more so than VH1," said Meredith Bivens, national broadcast supervisor for Omnicom Group's GSD&M. She said the channel is best for those with a "younger-skewing target" and the "right creative message" for the E! environment.
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