Can Meredith Vieira Break the Daytime Curse?
Katie Couric tried it—and failed. So did Anderson Cooper. But Vieira’s chances at conquering daytime TV are brighter than most.
The savage business of syndicated daytime television—into which The Meredith Vieira Show will bravely venture on Monday—can be a merciless meat grinder.
Many a talented and popular TV celebrity with a solid Q rating—a casualty list that includes Katie Couric, Anderson Cooper, Jane Pauley, Megan Mullally, Tony Danza, Kris Jenner and Sharon Osbourne—has entered as steak and exited as hamburger.
The rewards are potentially astronomical—billions of dollars in cumulative profits for a long-running program, Oprah being the gold standard—but the success rate is dauntingly miniscule. Yet Vieira, who turns 61 in December, probably has a better chance of survival than most.
“I think she’s going to do very well, because she’s a charmer,” says her friend Joy Behar, who got to know her during their decade together on The View, for which Vieira served as the original moderator from August 1997 till June 2006, when she departed for a wildly successful five-year run as Matt Lauer’s co-anchor on NBC’s Today show. At the same time she moonlighted for 11 years as the emcee of the Disney-syndicated game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
“The girl’s got talent,” Behar says. “She’s funny, she’s loose, she’s smart and she’s cute. What more do you want out of a daytime host?”
Quite a lot, it turns out.
“I think she stands a chance because she is really witty and smart and personable, so she may bring something to it that that others didn’t,” says a battle-scarred veteran of daytime television, who has known Vieira since the 1980s. “But if she’s going to have another show like Katie did or Anderson did, or anybody else who tries to get into that field thinking it’s not that hard to get people to watch a daytime show, she’s not gonna make it.”
This daytime TV soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity, is one of countless top producers who’ve worked their hearts out for a personality-driven program, only to watch helplessly as it circled the drain.
“There are actually three type of shows that succeed in daytime,” says the producer. “Either you’re a spectacular entertainer like Ellen DeGeneres is or Steve Harvey is, or you’re a sleazebag offering crazy trash like women looking for their baby-daddies or people fighting on camera [i.e. Maury Povich and Jerry Springer, or arguably Judge Judy], or it’s a group show like The View that has energy and different points of view that people can get into.”
Successful shows like Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil —which fall under the rubric of what syndicators like to call “conflict” or “drama” television—are hybrids of the aforementioned categories. Yet the producer warns: “There is not a market in daytime television for some smart new person who wants to have interesting conversations about topical stuff.”
Vieira and her team appear to have embraced the Darwinian realities of the syndicated daytime marketplace, which is dominated by a target audience of female viewers aged 18 to 54.
The NBC Universal-produced show, which is being taped in Studio 6A at 30 Rockefeller Center, next door to Jimmy Fallon and two floors down from Seth Meyers, will be heavy on light chatter, entertainment, uplifting human interest stories, and audience participation, notably in competitions for what a press release describes as “fabulous prizes.” Presumably there will be a great deal of jumping up and down excitedly and shrieking delightedly.
The set will replicate the well-worn, dog hair-ornamented furniture of Vieira’s actual living room at home; kids’ drawings done by her now-adult children will grace the walls. And unique among daytime shows, Vieira’s will feature live musicians—four women led by E Street Band drummer Everett Bradley, who will also function as Vieira’s sidekick.
“Each day,” the press release promises, “Vieira draws on her rich experience as a news anchor, journalist, wife, mother, caregiver, friend and pet lover to create the ultimate daytime viewing destination.”
Behar says: “People are drawn to her. It’s a safe place for celebrities to go—so people can get a look at their George Clooneys over there.”
What’s more, despite substantial wealth and a posh lifestyle—she lives on a manicured estate in New York’s well-to-do Westchester County—Vieira long ago established herself with daytime viewers as an everywoman who has grappled with serious real-life problems, just as they have.
Her fans know, for instance, that her husband, former network news producer Richard Cohen, suffers from multiple sclerosis and blindness. They know that she’s the granddaughter of striving Portuguese immigrants and grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, where she started out as a street reporter on the local NBC station. (Ironically, Vieira’s home station, WJAR, where she toiled for two years and rose to anchor the noon news, won’t be carrying her show—the ABC affiliate will air it instead.)
Vieira’s fans know that years later, when she was pregnant with one of her three children, she gave up a plum job as a correspondent on CBS’s top-rated 60 Minutes program when executive producer Don Hewitt refused to let her work part-time.
“With Meredith,” Behar says, “it’s family first.”
Vieira’s fans also know—because she once over-shared with an interviewer for Harper’s Bazaar—that she and Richard like to spend mornings sitting in lounge chairs out in their driveway—drinking coffee, reading the paper, and wearing only their underwear.
“There was something quite disturbing about that picture, especially for our neighbors,” Vieira acknowledged.
Her hour-long program, which will air at 2 p.m. in many of its over-200 media markets and at 3 p.m. in others, was a relatively easy sell to local television stations. It will premiere in 99 percent of the country and, ideally, will be broadcast after the NBC soap opera Days of Our Lives, and serve as the lead-in to the Steve Harvey Show at 3 p.m. and Ellen at 4 p.m.—a seamless three-hour block of female-friendly fun.
According to figures supplied by Comcast-owned NBC Universal—for which Vieira will have deposited 15 episodes in the video bank by the time of her Sept. 8 debut—it will be carried by the network’s 10 owned-and-operated stations in such major cities as New York and Los Angeles, and also by 76 NBC affiliate stations, along with 64 ABC affiliates, 29 CBS affiliates, 17 Fox affiliates and various CW and independent stations.
The show will reportedly cost around $35 million in its first year of production, not including Vieira’s estimated $5 million base salary plus equity stake—on the high side for this sort of enterprise.
Local stations will be able to sell 11 minutes of commercial time, compared to 4 minutes reserved for the network, in each episode. The economics of syndication suggest that while individual stations, which pay licensing fees to carry the program, must start seeing a profit immediately, NBC Universal should expect to wait two years before reaping a return on its huge investment.
On the other hand, it will be fairly obvious within four to six weeks—and certainly by the time of the November ratings sweeps—that The Meredith Vieira Show is working or, alas, not working.
“If she gets people to tune in twice a week, she’ll be successful, and if it’s more than that, she will be wildly successful,” says broadcasting consultant Bill Carroll, director of programming and research for the industry-leading Katz Television Group. “I think you have to be comfortable in what you’re doing. The audience can tell when you’re not comfortable. The audience also wants to believe that you’re one of them…Meredith is very relatable.”
The battle-scarred daytime TV vet agrees that Vieira could survive and even thrive, but offers a cautionary note. “I think she has a shot because of who she is, but it’s a real long shot,” says the producer. “It’s a narrow market. There are so many things to do if you feel like you’ve got time during the day. You’re watching online, you’re binge-watching on Netflix, you’re doing other things. Loyal audiences need a reason to be drawn to a daytime talk show.”
Team Vieira, no doubt, will try hard to provide one.