By FRANK SWERTLOW
On paper, Roseanne's new syndicated talk show sounded like a delicious deal so tempting when it was pitched earlier this year that it set off bidding wars among competing stations and was touted as one of the fastest-selling daytime shows in syndication history.
Today, it runs on 150 stations covering 93 percent of the country considered a high penetration rate for a syndicated program.
But in the TV business, perception has a habit of failing to meet reality. Roseanne has not done well in the ratings, prompting insiders to speculate that she will soon join the likes of Magic Johnson, Chevy Chase and other personalities who have fallen on their faces in the cut-throat TV talk game.
"They have a month to turn it around and see some growth," said Dick Kurlander, vice president and director of programming for New York-based Petry Television Inc., a company that advises stations on what shows to buy. "If it doesn't turn around, the show could be off by February or March."
Not so, said Andy Friendly, president of first-run programming at King World Productions Inc., which produces "Roseanne." "We are very sanguine about the show," he said. "It hasn't found an audience yet, but this is a marathon and not a sprint."
King World is no doubt motivated. "Roseanne" is not cheap to produce, particularly because of the salary demands of its high-profile star, who reportedly was paid $8 million up front plus a percentage of profits, valuable King World stock and perks like the use of a corporate jet.
Although stations made a two-year commitment to carry "Roseanne," King World could be forced to renegotiate its contracts if the show continues to tank perhaps by reducing the fees it charges. It might even have to cancel the show outright.
Moreover, many stations have the option to drop the show if it isn't meeting expectations.
"Most distributors don't want to saddle stations with a dud," said Garnett Losak, head of programming at New York-based Blair Television, which represents TV stations selling time to advertisers and recommends syndicated programming to its clients. "You want to replace a faltering show with something that has an upside."
Most of the stars who have failed with their own talk shows in recent years are celebrities who were highly in demand as guests on other people's talk shows. But a good guest doesn't always make a good host.
Chase, an experienced standup comic as well as TV and film star, bombed on Fox. Johnson, a legendary basketball player and amiable interviewee, learned how painful hosting a talker can be when Fox pulled the plug earlier this year.
Of the current lineup, "Donny and Marie," starring the Osmond brother-and-sister team, averaged an anemic 1.5 rating and had a 5 share for October. "Howie," hosted by comedian Howie Mandel, had a 1.6 rating and a 5 share.
But Roseanne, dubbed "the Lucy of the '90s" by TV Guide, was supposed to be different, which is why station owners were so anxious to sign her up.
Yet for the October sweeps, which ended Oct. 21, Roseanne averaged a 2.1 rating and a 7 percent share of the audience, according to Nielsen Media Research. By comparison, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" (another King World production), which is the No. 1 syndicated talker, averaged a 6.4 rating and a 17 share.
A year ago, the numerous shows that Roseanne replaced at stations around the country averaged a 3.5 rating during the October sweeps and a 12 share 5 critical share points higher than Roseanne.
"We all knew that she would be either a big hit or a big flop, and unfortunately it's the latter," said Kurlander. "She screeches a lot and is very irritating to watch, and there are too many profanities that have to be bleeped. You don't mind them as much when it's a guest, but it's a negative when it comes from the host."
The NBC affiliate in Paducah, Ky. dropped "Roseanne" after two days because of the profanities uttered by the host.
King World is hurriedly retooling the show for the all-crucial November sweeps. It will be on location next month from Harlem's historic Apollo Theater, and the month's guest list will include stars like Bill Cosby, Bette Midler and Ellen Degeneres. Roseanne will also have a reunion show with John Goodman and other members of the cast from her former sitcom.
"We have been evolving the production and learning what works and doesn't work," said King World's Friendly. "We've been doing research and been getting advice from stations and advertisers. We also use our gut. We may have aimed too high on the comedy. We are adjusting."
Dave Davis, an entertainment specialist at the Century City-based Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin, said stations carrying "Roseanne" should exercise patience.
"In syndication, it is possible to have a bump up and then drop and then bump up again," he said. "Jerry Springer didn't kill anybody for years, but then he became an absolute necessity. It's too early to write off Roseanne."
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