Looking Ahead at the Changing Terrain of Daytime TV

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Today Oprah Winfrey will air the very last episode of her eponymous talk show, and as she goes, the staid landscape of daytime television will begin to undergo some serious terraforming. News anchors Katie Couric and Anderson Cooper will be fielding their own syndicated talk shows, and soap-opera stalwarts All My Children and One Life to Live have been canceled. There's even a chance that 79-year-old Regis Philbin, who is abandoning his morning perch alongside Kelly Ripa, will find his own star vehicle. Meanwhile, Kelly's got to find a new man!

It's a lot of upheaval for a corner of the TV industry that has barely changed in the last few decades. Regis has occupied the nine o'clock hour for a quarter of a century. Oprah's been on for the same amount of time. So shifts like these are positively seismic — and brave, at a time when daytime audiences are steadily shrinking and ad sales are limping along after the recession. What's in store for the upstart newcomers?

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Kelly Ripa: Having starred alongside Regis for ten years, the former All My Children star will now have to shoulder most of the heavy lifting on her own at Live. She's more than up to it — she's been picking up the slack for an increasingly faltering Regis for years now. Viewers are already familiar with most of the faces that could replace him — Andy Cohen, Cameron Mathison, Neil Patrick Harris, Howie Mandel, and a host of other candidates have subbed in for Regis plenty of times.

The Ratings Story: Live pulls in between 3 and 3.5 million viewers a day. Those aren't Oprah or Judge Judy numbers, but it still trounces other personality-based shows like Rachael Ray and Wendy Williams.

Strengths: Ripa herself has a lot going for her — comic timing, a likable and chirpy personality, and the ability to keep things moving briskly in pretty much every situation. Plus, the show also has the momentum of decades behind it, as well as a winning formula of celebrity guests and silly contests that appeal to its mid-morning audience.

Weaknesses: Addled codger or no, Regis has a very deep following, especially among the middle-aged-to-senior audience who tunes in to Live. If he goes elsewhere, some of them might follow him. (Though it's hard to imagine he'd inhabit the same time slot.)

The Big Question: Will Kelly pair off with a relative unknown, as she herself was when she assumed the morning mantle? Or, in an effort to replace Regis's star power, will producers try to find a huge name to fill his seat, at the risk of destroying the carefully calibrated Live formula?

Recommendation: The Live team should make the replacement search as big of a deal as possible, with prolonged auditions, the way they did when Kathie Lee left. That'll draw in viewers and also make it so that whomever they pick will feel like he fits in with the show.

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Rosie O'Donnell: When Oprah signs off forever next week, she will leave an awfully big gap for the comedienne to fill. This fall, Rosie will broadcast from Winfrey's old studio in Chicago, hopefully absorbing some of Oprah's aura when the Queen of Daytime's show ends this spring. Not much is known about Rosie's show, but it will appear on the Oprah Winfrey Network, whose ratings thus far haven't been as impressive as expected.

The Ratings Story: Oprah was consistently in the top ten syndicated shows this past quarter — that's millions and millions of viewers every day. The average OWN show pulls in a mere 135,000 viewers, which basically guarantees that Rosie will have to start from scratch, with no strong lead-in. Tough odds when you're putting yourself in your predecessor's studio.

Strengths: Rosie's a proven daytime star. She won multiple Emmys for her previous talk show, which lasted from 1996 to 2002, and drew headlines and ratings as a contentious moderator on The View.

Weaknesses: After years of grousing online, growing increasingly fervent in her support of far-left causes, and living openly as a lesbian, Rosie can never quite go back to that bubbly, sweet, "Tom Cruise–loving" character that made her first daily show a hit.

The Big Question: Will Rosie try to be Oprah 2.0? It's been a long time since we've thought of Rosie as an empath — if she wants to go that route, she'll have to work to earn the trust of Oprah's sensitive viewers. (In some markets, Ellen DeGeneres will fill Oprah's time slot. In others, Anderson Cooper.)

Recommendation: Let Rosie be Rosie, but keep her funny and optimistic. The lady can get very dark when she's not focused, and nobody wants that during the daytime. She doesn't have to be like Oprah, but if she concentrates on a message of inspiration, she'll be headed in the right direction.

Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Katie Couric: She's developing a show with her Today comrade Jeff Zucker for ABC, reportedly, and she's said that it would feature lighter fare, as well as serious, newsy interviews and segments. Politics on a network during daytime: Could that work?

The Ratings Story: At Today, rivals never touched her and Matt. At the Evening News, ratings dropped 30 percent in the key news demographic during her tenure. This past quarter she attracted an average of 6.4 million total viewers, which is a third less than pack leader Brian Williams did at NBC Nightly News and well behind Diane Sawyer on ABC.

Strengths: It's almost pointless to enumerate Couric's strengths. She was half (maybe even two-thirds) of the human formula that led the Today show to dominate all other morning shows for a decade.

Weaknesses: Still, after five years of staid, somber news-reading, will viewers remember the magic?

The Big Question: Katie's always taken herself very seriously. Will she be able to make the kind of serious, hard-hitting stuff she wants to do work in the daytime?

Recommendation: Big-get interviews aren't for the daytime — that's not where the audiences are. So Katie should save those for her (rumored) appearances on Good Morning America and evening specials. You can be newsy during the day, to be sure, but she should stick with Fun Katie for the most part.

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Anderson Cooper: It's ironic: Just after Anderson finally caved on his dreams of inheriting one of the network anchor spots and announced plans to start a syndicated daytime show, that CBS gig finally became available. And Anderson at CBS would have made perfect sense — he's already a contributor to 60 Minutes. But the network tapped another silver-haired anchor, Scott Pelley, and plans for Anderson! (exclamation ours) are moving steadily onward. (Even though Regis's seat, another one he seems perfectly suited to fill, is also up for grabs.)

The Ratings Story: Anderson is neither the strongest anchor at CNN, nor is he usually the strongest in his time slot across cable news. This past quarter, according to Nielsen, his news demo numbers edged out Greta Van Susteren on Fox News for the first time in two years. But these past three months have been an unusually intense period for international news, one of Anderson's strengths — and one that won't necessarily translate to daytime TV.

Strengths: He is arguably CNN's most famous anchor. In recent years, through his frequent guest appearances on Live and his now-infamous New Year's Eve specials with Kathy Griffin, audiences have also learned that Manderson can be funny.

Weaknesses: Anderson's at his funniest when he's working alongside someone wacky, off whom he can play the straight man. Alone, he's not much of a comedian.

The Big Question: In interviews, Anderson is notoriously tight-lipped about his personal and romantic lives. If he's going to take the Oprah path, can he really continue to maintain such a strict divide between his home and on-camera lives?

Recommendation: For Anderson!, Cooper should hire a regular sidekick — preferably a female comedian — to keep things moving. Sort of a lady Andy Richter. And he should relax a little! He's going to be up against Ellen — she dances.

Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Ricki Lake: Can you believe the Ricki Lake show ran for ten whole seasons? Since then Ricki's made headlines primarily for doing things that are gross, like making a documentary about her home water birth and co-hosting VH1's Charm School with Sharon Osbourne. Just last month, word hit that she's scored a deal to start a new talk show in the fall of 2012. According to a statement, it will "present topical conversation reflecting Ricki's own personal journey and recent life experiences, including family, marriage, parenting, divorce, weight loss and overall well-being."

The Ratings Story: There are no recent ratings to look at, but Fox Television Station Productions, which delivered up the irreverent Wendy Williams Show, will be working with Ricki. Wendy was just renewed for a third season, even though she's not in the top 25-rated syndicated shows.

Strengths: Honestly, who remembers? Ricki was funny, her show was crazy, and she wore sweater sets. That's all I can recall. But the format — relying on audience participation and a woman's perspective — was canny and easily repeatable.

Weaknesses: Since her show ended, Lake's mostly appeared in pop culture in moments of stunt casting: John Waters movies, cameos on shows like Drop Dead Diva, and the aforementioned Charm School incident. That doesn't broaden one's base.

The Big Question: Will her new show be a reprise of her last one? And if so, is America ready for it?

Recommendations: Beyond being a punch line, Ricki's also noteworthy for her famous struggles with weight. If she goes for the relatability angle — and plays it more Oprah than Carnie — it could give her new show a boost. The show's stated purpose seems like it's on the right track.