In 2017, Wendy Williams fainted on live television. The daytime gossip queen quickly got up and continued her show, but that episode signaled the beginning of health issues that plagued Williams. At the start of the fall 2021 TV season, the host went on a hiatus due to complications from Graves’ disease but, ultimately, never returned. As a result, “The Wendy Williams Show” is coming to a sudden end next month after a 14-year run.
Williams, who helped redefined the daytime space after conquering radio with her gift for gab, has said in various interviews that she plans to return to her show this fall. But with plans charging ahead for the 2022-23 television season, Williams isn’t reclaiming her purple chair so soon — and even if she did, she’d return to a daytime landscape that has dramatically changed almost overnight.
Not since “The Oprah Winfrey Show” ended in 2011 has the daytime world been rocked by such a sea change. That starts with the monumental exit of Ellen DeGeneres from the space, as she ends her signature show after 19 years. Also out is Dr. Oz, who dumped his show and ventured into politics. This year, television’s grim reaper also took hold of “The Nick Cannon Show,” “The Good Dish,” “Maury,” “Judge Jerry,” “The Doctors” and “The Real.”
“Daytime is important. People rely on it,” says Jack Abernethy, CEO of the Fox Television Stations. “But look at soaps — daytime has to be refreshed, just like every medium. If you look across the whole daytime landscape, you’re hard pressed to find these legacy hosts anymore, so the space is in transition now, but that’s a good thing. We need to keep it new and fresh.”
Suddenly, daytime’s chat show veterans include recent newbies like Drew Barrymore, Tamron Hall and Kelly Clarkson, whose “The Kelly Clarkson Show” ranked just behind “Ellen” this season and will fill DeGeneres’ NBC-owned TV stations’ time slots.
The only singular veteran host to continue on next season is “Dr. Phil,” who’s been on the air for two decades and still tops all daytime talkers, right next to “Live With Kelly and Ryan.”
At a time when broadcast audiences are steadily waning, and younger TikTok-obsessed viewers might not even know what a talk show is, syndication is nonetheless moving forward with the next round of talent launching their own talk shows, including Sherri Shepherd and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson — whose show will be produced by “Ellen’s” team, but moves to the Fox stations.
Meanwhile, with Maury Povich ending his 31-year reign, “Queer Eye” star Karamo Brown, who was a frequent presence on “Maury,” is getting his own show with NBCUniversal Syndication Studios in the fall.
Certainly, gone are the days of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” where, at her peak, nearly 13 million viewers would tune in live each day. This season, “Dr. Phil” and “Live” are typically tied, averaging above 2.4 million viewers per episode, and “Ellen,” in third place, is hovering around 1.4 million every day. If you look beyond talk shows, the top numbers in all of daytime went to reruns of “Judge Judy,” and in terms of syndication overall, nothing can hold a candle to “Wheel of Fortune” and the ultimate leader, “Jeopardy!,” which has averaged nearly 8.7 million viewers this month.
Yet, it’s all relative. Sure, viewers are leaving broadcast for streaming, but it’s not like emerging platforms have it any easier. The short lives of CNN+ and Quibi demonstrate the difficulty of launching new outlets in so much congestion. As for hosts who have jumped to streaming, Steve Harvey’s Facebook Watch series and the new version of “Judge Judy” on Amazon Freevee (formerly known as IMDb TV) have struggled to enter the zeitgeist, like their broadcast shows once did. (Don’t worry: “Judge Judy” made Sheindlin one of the richest women to ever come from television, with a net worth reported at $460 million.)
Daytime talk has always been a challenge. Just ask Meredith Viera, Harry Connick Jr. and Katie Couric. But whereas the space used to be tough to crack because there was so much competition, today, there might be an upside with fewer hosts.
“The total pie is more competitive,” says Debmar-Mercury’s Marcus. “We’re in the world of social media and video on demand, which present more hurdles. But the broadcast stations and the daytime marketplace are less competitive than they have ever been because all these shows have gone away and they’re not being replaced with the same amount of shows. So, that’s a positive for the distribution.”
Even though the syndication model is changing, the power of daytime still remains.
“The biggest stars in the world, you can argue even bigger than movie stars, have come from daytime. Ellen. Oprah. You’ve got names that carry enormous weight,” says Mike Darnell, president of Warner Bros. Unscripted Television, which is behind “Ellen” and Hudson’s upcoming show. “What daytime does is creates this adventure of being inside your home every day, so they become a member of your family. They become important to you and they take on this enormous stature, and I don’t think that’s changed at all.”
But what has changed are the ratings, which have dramatically shrunk in recent years.
“The truth is it’s always been tough to launch anything as a hit,” Darnell adds. “In syndication and daytime, the legacy shows that are now leaving — Oz, Ellen, Wendy — are the anomalies. And Ellen, she pulled off that rare success where you achieve icon status.”
Darnell shares that every few years when DeGeneres’ contract was up, he begged her to stay. When DeGeneres eventually re-upped in 2019, there had been rumors, at that time, that she would take her final bow. DeGeneres’ announcement to end her run ended up coming after she was hit with a series of damaging articles that brought forth allegations of a toxic work environment, which she has denied. Darnell says, ultimately, it was just time for the host. “19 years, that’s no joke. Only in the landscape of daytime is that not considered forever,” the exec quips. “She hit the pinnacle of what you can be in this space. But I think she absolutely could’ve kept going, and we absolutely would’ve kept doing it.”
As for Williams, Ira Bernstein, co-president of Lionsgate’s Debmar-Mercury (which launched Williams’ show on the Fox stations in 2008) says he’d like to get back in business with the host when she’s healthy.
“It doesn’t mean the next day, but we will put it together and figure it out. It’s not like we have a Plan B where we hit a button and it’s back in a week, but we do have the desire to be in business with her, if she can come back and be healthy, and so does Fox,” he says.
Speaking publicly for the first time about the situation, the company’s executives say they always thought Williams would return. In the meantime, Debmar-Mercury brought in guest hosts and panelists and played leap frog, day-by-day for a full year. They never actually thought the show would come to an end — until it did.
“Other than her health, she could have continued to keep doing it as long as she wanted. She was still getting a rating, and she has a die-hard audience that turned it into a profitable show,” says Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar-Mercury. “We were protecting the business, while we waited for her. And at some point, we had to say, ‘We have a business to run and she’s not here.’ It was a hard call.”
While Williams was absent, many guests slotted in. The highest rated was Shepherd, former co-host of “The View.” This fall, Shepherd will launch her very own nationally syndicated talk show, “Sherri.”
“She was great at the job of substituting in for Wendy, but the other part is that she’s clearly very comfortable in her own skin and that’s not to be underestimated. She’s been through the wars of daytime, she’s been in and around the business, so she gets who she is. She’s not trying to fake anything,” says Marcus. “And I think that’s something that very few people have. It’s hard. You can’t teach it.”
Shepherd’s show will occupy the time slots previously held by Williams on the Fox stations, and will be produced by the same production team in the same studio. But the show will be uniquely hers, with a light and comedic tone.
“What I want to do is make it fun and friendly because I never want anybody to feel worse because they watched me talk about them, because I’ve been on the receiving end of that. I’m always coming from a place of love and joy and fun in life,” says Shepherd.
When DeGeneres was leaving, rumors swirled that Jennifer Aniston’s name was floating around. (“Can I plead the fifth?” Darnell responds when asked if he ever took a meeting with Aniston.)
But another Jennifer — Hudson — emerged as the perfect fit for daytime. The Grammy and Oscar winner first met Darnell back when she was a contestant on “American Idol.”
“I knew who she was, and she’s still a Chicago native who is down to earth, authentic, easygoing and funny as hell. I knew we could translate that into a talk show,” Darnell says. “We did the pilot and I’ve got to tell you, she was great. I had not experienced that since I’ve been here.”
With Hudson and Shepherd joining the ranks of daytime, the genre is more inclusive than it’s ever been. In recent history, when Fox greenlit “Wendy Williams” and “The Real,” distributors had trouble gaining affiliate support at first because they were seen as niche shows — now, proven to be mainstream hits.
“I didn’t get to see a lot of black women on TV growing up, so to think that little brown girls can look up and see three black women on TV right now, it just blows my mind that Tamron, Jennifer and me are all hosting our own talk shows,” Shepherd beams.
Daytime TV has long held a reputation for being competitive and pitting women against each other. Just look at “The View,” which gets more tabloid attention for catfights than for its strong ratings and the political conversations it leads. But today, with so many different female hosts occupying the space, the times are changing — and these women are rooting for one another.
“It’s refreshing to see TV hosts that are relatable and reflective of the diverse audience who watch daytime,” says Hall, creator and executive producer of “The Tamron Hall Show,” which has been renewed for two more seasons. “This influx of new shows also allows for the range of conversations to expand. This wasn’t always the case, and it’s thrilling to see the tide start to shift.”
With all the changes in television, the old-school model of daytime syndication has had to experiment with different ways of distribution. For instance, Drew Barrymore’s syndicated show was renewed for a third season, but with a reimagined format: The hourlong series will split into two 30-minute parts, now with a lead-in of a 9 a.m. newscast on the CBS stations.
The new format for “Drew” emphasizes the importance of local news to station groups, in addition to their national shows. “When there’s a hurricane in Houston, they go to channel 26. They don’t go to Netflix,” says Frank Cicha, EVP of programming for Fox Television Stations.
For Fox, their syndication model is essentially to do the exact opposite of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, which means leaning into live, day-and-date programming.
“The streamers are primarily about choice with a long-tail library and watching things when you want to. We’re more about scale with fresh, live and local,” Abernethy says. “The game shows have been taped before, but they feel live. The talk shows feel live. The court shows feel live.”
Fox’s owned-and-operated stations have expanded their news product to nearly 1,100 hours of local news programming per week. Abernethy has also tasked his local stations with creating original non-news programming, which could perhaps be a pipeline to find new national content.
A decade ago, the Fox station group launched its testing model for national pilots, which has now become its norm. “The Wendy Williams Show” and “The Real” began as summer test runs in select markets, as did shows from Kris Jenner, Ice T and Coco, though those never made it to a full national launch.
“We have the most shelf space to fill because the network only really provides us with two hours a day, so we knew something had to happen,” Cicha recalls. “It was simple thinking. If you tried more shows, wouldn’t you have a chance to potentially have more hits?”
With time slots to fill, daytime talk is an economical element to program, which means it’s not going anywhere — even if the definition of a hit has changed immensely.