BY: DAVID BAUDER
NEW YORK – Regis Philbin’s announcement that he is leaving daytime TV brings the realization that three giants of television talk — Oprah Winfrey, Larry King and Philbin — are leaving the roles that defined them within a year of each other.
It’s worth wondering who will come along in TV to match them in longevity and broad-based influence.
“Their names will be remembered in the same way we remember Edward R. Murrow or Johnny Carson,” said Bill Carroll, an expert on the syndication market for Katz Television.
Each of them insist they’re not retiring — even Philbin, who will turn 80 in August, close to when his last “Live With Regis and Kelly” will air. Certainly Winfrey has a huge new challenge, having just launched a cable TV network with her name and sensibility.
But her years as a daytime talk show host established her legacy: the book club; Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz who took flight under Winfrey’s wing; the aspirational messages and even audacious stunts (everyone in the audience gets a new car!).
Before Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann had platforms to attack political opponents, King was the first prime-time personality in cable news. Until his slow fade over the past decade, King’s CNN show was a necessary, and comfortable, public square for politicians, entertainers and other newsmakers.
Philbin is the Everyman who comes into your home each morning and is hard not to like and easy to keep watching. He is David Letterman’s favorite butt of jokes, but even that notorious crank regards him with genuine, touching affection.
“Regis is one of those fine broadcasters that television doesn’t serve up very often,” said David Bianculli, a veteran television critic and now a media professor at Rowan University in New Jersey. “We are going to miss him. He is honest in a medium that doesn’t reward honesty and doesn’t often feature it.”
He hasn’t set a date for his last show, although it will most likely be in late summer. “The Oprah Winfrey Show” will exit on Sept. 9. King’s last nightly CNN show aired on Dec. 16.
Winfrey is clearly the most difficult personality to replace in the talk show world, said Joel Berman, former head of worldwide distribution for CBS/Paramount Television, who now runs his own consulting business.
“I’m not saying it couldn’t happen again, but there is no one on the horizon who is in her league,” Berman said.
The end of Winfrey’s daily show leaves an opportunity for the personalities who got their start on her show — Phil McGraw, Mehmet Oz and Nate Berkus — to gain a wider audience. Ellen DeGeneres’ comfortably entertaining show also seems poised for greater success. CNN’s Anderson Cooper will start his own talk show but, given his level of popularity, may have been better suited to slip into Philbin’s chair.
Craig Ferguson, still with a relatively small audience in the post-midnight hour on CBS, is developing a range that makes him comfortable in matters from the serious to the silly.
“He is probably the best natural broadcaster who is out there today,” Bianculli said.
Katie Couric proved her ability to be quick and engaging over many years on the “Today” show. This is her year to decide whether to continue as the lead news anchor at CBS News or to branch out.
With Piers Morgan, CNN has already filled King’s showcase spot in its prime-time lineup. Morgan has shown he loves the spotlight as much as King preferred deflecting it. Morgan prepares assiduously for interviews, calculating his opportunities to reveal something newsworthy. He’s yet to be tested in a live environment: He prefers the control of tapes and editing.
Philbin proved his ability to create chemistry with co-stars over many years, most notably with Kelly Ripa and Kathie Lee Gifford. His show provides a durable enough format to continue without him, so long as producers find someone who can create the same satisfying on-air relationship with Ripa.
Larger than the question of whether anyone will have the durability and stature of these three in 25 years is whether television will exist then the way it does now. Maybe people will be much more comfortable on the Internet, or talking tweets. Young people are increasingly enjoying talk shows, particularly the entertainment-based shows, in slices of highlights online rather than sitting for an hour watching TV.
“I can’t imagine Jimmy Fallon hanging around on NBC late-night in his 60s,” Bianculli said. “Maybe, neither can he.”
There is still room for new ideas and people to emerge. Barbara Walters’ invention, “The View,” is still relatively new in television terms and gave a popular new twist to the format. Rosie O’Donnell’s stardom emerged suddenly and brightly, but she lacked the durability.
Decades ago local television was a breeding ground of talent in this format — Winfrey and Philbin both toiled in the minor leagues. Now fewer of these stations have similar local shows for hosts to develop, Berman said. Cable is the best path to success now, but that frequently entails developing a persona that would make you loved by some, hated by others.
Of course, there was a time no one was reserving room in any Halls of Fame for Winfrey, King and Philbin. There were no guarantees that Winfrey would move beyond “People Are Talking” on Baltimore’s WJZ-TV. King’s niche was the graveyard shift in talk radio. Philbin was Joey Bishop’s TV sidekick.
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