Magic Johnson has become the latest celebrity to discover that talk show hosts are not easily created, made-for-TV commodities.
Late last week, Twentieth Television, a division of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., slam-dumped the anemic-rated "Magic Hour" just two months after its premiere. The show, syndicated nationally, had been seen on KTTV-Channel 11 and 21 other Fox-owned stations.
From the start, Johnson, who was the darling of sports writers, failed to bedazzle either the public or TV critics, who soundly savaged his inexperience as a talk show host.
"It shows you how difficult it is to make the transition from sports to live-time entertainment," said Steve Cesinger, an investment banker specializing in the entertainment industry at Greif & Co. "He was a great personality and a great basketball player, but at the end of the day, you have to give a great monologue and engage in engaging banter. The ratings spoke for themselves."
And the ratings were terrible.
"The Magic Hour" debut week, starting June 8, averaged a 1.8 rating nationally, meaning that 1.8 percent of households with TVs were tuning in, according to the A.C. Nielsen Corp. That was down to a 1.6 rating for the week beginning July 13, the most recent period for which there are national numbers.
For the week beginning July 20, Johnson posted a 2.4 rating in Los Angeles, compared with a 6.3 for NBC's "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno and a 3.3 for CBS' "Late Night with David Letterman." Johnson had been averaging a 1.8 in New York.
"It was a lack of ratings that killed him," said Arthur Rockwell, an analyst at Drake Capital Mamagement. "In this business, if you deliver the numbers, you stay on. If you don't, you're off. Quality doesn't matter."
In its cancellation announcement, Twentieth Television said "The Magic Hour" was too costly to continue with such low ratings and the ensuing low advertising rates that would follow.
"The economics of such an enterprise make it impossible to continue beyond its initial period without gaining higher ratings in a very short period of time," the announcement said.
The Fox division had hoped to capitalize on Johnson's magic with both white and African-American audiences. But the affable former Laker found the talk show transition difficult.
"Oh man, I thought there were a lot of sofa-couch basketball coaches when I was (a player)," Johnson said a week before getting his pink slip. "There is even more, now. Everybody is saying, 'Do this, say it like this. Don't wear suits, wear a coat.' I tried to be somebody that I was not, and it wasn't coming across well."
Such media training was withering, but he felt he was becoming more comfortable before the cameras as the show progressed.
"I am being me instead of being that robot that I was," he said. "I would be the first to tell you that I didn't know what I was doing the first couple of weeks."
Unfortunately for Johnson, his inexperience showed. Garnett Losak, vice president and director of programming at New York-based Blair Television, which consults stations about what shows to buy, said that in an effort to compensate for Johnson's media deficiencies, the show became over-produced and stilted. "You don't get a sense that something is going to happen that is worth staying up for," she said.
Bill Carroll, a vice president for New York-based Katz Television Group, which also advises stations on programming purchases, said Fox hoped to capitalize on Johnson's charisma as a basketball star to woo audiences, but when the camera lights came on, the magic fizzled.
"Charisma doesn't work for folks who don't have interviewing skills," he said.
Johnson is the latest in a long line of celebrities who failed to make the transition to talk show stardom.
One big example was Chevy Chase, who made the transition from TV stardom on "Saturday Night Live" to success in films, but flopped as a talk show host for Fox. Whoopie Goldberg, another movie star, also bombed out, as did comic Keenan Ivory Wayans.
Successful talk show stars seem to be discovered by audiences, not made by opportunistic programmers. Oprah Winfrey was a newscaster in Baltimore before succeeding as a local talk show host in Chicago. Rosie O'Donnell was a modestly successful standup comic and sometime actress before she attained stardom as a talk show host. Johnny Carson was an afternoon game show host before he got the call to replace Jack Paar.
Ironically, stardom as a talk show host doesn't translate to stardom in other arenas. Jay Leno and David Letterman have never become successful film actors. Carson never became a movie star. Jack Paar faded to obscurity and failed in a comeback attempt.
Still, the lure of hosting a talk show is enticing. Roseanne will make her debut this fall, as will Donny and Marie Osmond. Howie Mandell has already premiered, to less than overwhelming ratings.
Why do they try when so many fail? "It was something different," Johnson said. "It is a challenge. I always wanted to try it and I am getting a chance to see if I can succeed at it."
Why do programmers hustle after celebrities to host talk shows when the attrition rate is so high? Money. Talk shows are cheap to produce and if they succeed, like Winfrey or O'Donnell, they become cash cows.
The arena is especially volatile now because of the aging of Leno and Letterman. Producers believe there is room for a younger, hipper host in the late-night wars.
In particular, an African-American talk show host is a hot commodity because young, free-spending African-American viewers are underserved.
"(African Americans) are not watching Jay Leno or David Letterman," said Losak. "They are watching cable or some other source, but not (reruns) of 'Cheers' or 'Seinfeld.' This is a lucrative audience for advertisers."
For Johnson, the foray into the world of entertainment has been a blistering experience, but when asked how he felt about the attacks by critics a week before his cancellation, he seemed unfazed.
"It doesn't matter," he said. "I am still me. I am going to be me."
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