Danza vs. Pauley lesson: Play to host's strengths

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To evaluate last fall's two high-profile syndicated talk-show debuts, "The Tony Danza Show" and "The Jane Pauley Show," is to understand exactly how much expectations dictate the perception of success and failure in the win-now world of syndication.

Consider: "Pauley" averaged a 1.5 Nielsen rating in the four-month period following its debut last August, while "Danza" notched a 1.3. And yet nobody batted an eye when, in mid-February, "Danza" received a huge thumbs-up in the form of an early renewal for 2005-06. At the same time, station executives and agency media buyers shrugged when informed that "Pauley's" ratings had inched up as high as 1.8 for a week at the end of January, so resigned do they seem to its eventual cancellation.

Nobody expected Oprah-like numbers from "Pauley" from the outset, but the widespread assumption was that the veteran TV journalist-turned-talk show host would attract a larger, smarter, more affluent audience than any talkie in recent memory. When she didn't do this right away, supporters jumped off the bandwagon in droves.

"I think [the producers] felt that Jane Pauley was a marquee property and that her name would be enough. The format wasn't right," says Shari Cohen, co-executive director for national broadcast at WPP Group's MindShare Worldwide, New York.

Dave Boylan, VP-general manager at Post-Newsweek Stations' WPLG, a Miami/Fort Lauderdale station, goes so far as to suggest that "Pauley" didn't deliver on its initial premise.

"The show was sold with the idea that she has `the Rolodex other hosts would die to have.' The program that she in fact produced was void of big-name guest talent," he notes. As an example, Mr. Boylan points to "Pauley's" first week, which was filmed only a few minutes away from where the Republican Party was convening in Manhattan. "She did not have an interview with the president or a key member of the Bush family," he says. "We immediately knew that the program was in trouble."

DELIVERY ISSUES

Barry Wallach, president of NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution, acknowledges some "delivery issues," but stresses that advertisers "have gotten what they bought, which is a clean, wholesome environment for their message to be heard in."

Mr. Wallach agrees to an extent that "Pauley" suffered from high expectations, but notes that recent tweaks to the show's format-notably a lighter, airier tone-have goosed the ratings. Indeed, a quick glimpse at the slate of topics for a recent week, which included an hour with Donny Osmond and an episode devoted to the Bravo reality show "Project Runway," indicates that "Pauley" has rejiggered its approach.

Mr. Wallach also suggests that "Pauley's" numbers should be viewed in their proper context. "She's been running at a 1.6-1.8 for the last few weeks. `Ellen' was huge and hot last year, and she was a 1.8," he notes. "Advertisers are getting the eyeballs and the quality of eyeballs."

He won't, however, comment on whether "Pauley" will see a second season beyond saying, "We sold the show for two years. We have two-year commitments from all of our stations."

Walt Disney Co.' s Buena Vista Television removed the suspense from any such speculation about "The Tony Danza Show" with an almost giddily worded news release Feb. 8 announcing its return. While Buena Vista Exec VP-Advertising Sales Howard Levy isn't one to gloat, he dismisses the notion that the talk show starring the sitcom veteran benefited from low expectations.

"I don't know if we convinced the advertisers or not, but nobody here had low expectations," he says. "I believed in Tony as a talent. You can sell any way you want, but if your show doesn't have the right person, no matter what you do you're never going to succeed."

This may be akin to saying "without a good cook, you're not going to have much of a supper," but programming and agency executives agree that Mr. Danza's geniality has fueled his success.

GRANDMA LOVES HIM

"You get the feeling that you could go up to him, take a picture and tell him how much your grandma loves him," quips Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming for Katz Television Group, New York. "With Jane, maybe it would be `Excuse me, Miss Pauley. Maybe we can get a picture?' "

Media buyers in particular laud the receptivity of "Danza" to product integration. Ed Gentner, senior VP-group director, national broadcast, at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest, New York, believes the show's lighter fare presents a "more desirable" environment than the occasionally issue-heavy "Pauley."

Ms. Cohen, pointing to the "Small Chef Big Mess" cooking challenge her agency helped coordinate on behalf of Unilever's All laundry brand, says simply that the Danza show "is user-friendly. We didn't even think to approach Jane Pauley."

As for lessons that might be learned from "Pauley" and "Danza," executives acknowledge it's hard to give a cookie-cutter list of signs that advertisers might look for to discern a winner in advance. The host's likability remains paramount, as does a format that plays to the host's strengths.

Sure, this sounds self-evident, but that's generally all that would-be advertisers have to go on. Along these lines, Liz Chang, VP-programming for Hearst-Argyle Television's WCVB, Boston, and WMUR, Manchester, N.H., believes stations and advertisers should demand pilots of future syndicated talk shows. "There's only so much you can get from a presentation tape," she notes.

In the end, Ms. Chang and her peers preach patience, something that's in short supply not just for talk shows but for all syndicated programming.

"There's a lot of `What am I getting today?' which is too bad because there are a lot of shows that need some time to get their legs," says Mr. Gentner. Counters Ms. Cohen: "You can't be patient if you're losing money. If [a show] can't make concessions from a pricing standpoint to buyers, that's not our fault."

An informal survey of station executives and media buyers reveals that roughly 80% don't expect "Pauley" to see next September. Most believe that regardless of how the show performs during the February and May sweeps-a decision on its fate is expected after the latter-the damage has already been done.

"Many stations had high expectations and they weren't met, so they have emotionally moved on," Mr. Carroll says. "Changing that is like turning around a huge cruise ship in the middle of the Hudson River. I guess it can be done, but the likelihood is pretty small."

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