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Who’ll claim Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk throne?

By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Daytime talk definitely isn’t cheap this fall.

A year after Oprah Winfrey left as daytime’s queen to launch her own cable network, the afternoon kingdom is still in search of a successor. Winfrey closed out the last season of her 25-year term averaging about 6 million viewers, hardly her best but still a level over and above the current crop of talk shows.

The “after Oprah” world is still in its infancy, and several new (and familiar) faces will vie for rule this fall: “Survivor” host Jeff Probst, talk show veteran Ricki Lake and TV journalist Katie Couric all rolled out syndicated talk shows Monday. And that’s not all — “Family Feud” host Steve Harvey debuted last week, and conflict-resolution expert Trisha Goddard and Marie Osmond are poised to launch their talk shows in the coming weeks.

That’s a lot of chatter.

The new players join an already busy field — Dr. Phil! Dr. Oz! Ellen! Though long-term survival is questionable in an overcrowded field as afternoon viewing habits continue to evolve, the risk is worth it. In addition to burnishing their personal brands, daytime talkers that endure and thrive can grab a sizable chunk of hefty ad revenues in the talk genre — which totaled an estimated $700 million last season.

“We are dealing with the post-Oprah time frame, so it’s not surprising that people want to throw their hat into the ring this year, now that the lion is out,” said Ethan Heftman, director of national broadcast for the ad-buying firm Initiative. “That on top of soap operas losing their grip on daytime, and there are now more opportunities for personalities to get in the game.”

Of the big names, none will be more scrutinized than Couric. The 55-year-old returns to a familiar turf after leaving a 15-year-stint on NBC’s “Today” to head up the CBS Evening News — a less well-received venture that lasted five years. With “Katie,” she moves to ABC and marks Disney-ABC Domestic Television’s first new syndicated talk show since Tony Danza’s short-lived talk show went off the air six years ago.

The network has a lot riding on “America’s Sweetheart.” In a bid to have Couric’s show air in most markets at 3 p.m., the network moved the time slot of its last-surviving soap, “General Hospital,” which gave back an hour to its affiliates.

And, yes, Couric knows all eyes are on her. For the first episode of her show, whose lineup of stations reaches 97 percent of the country, the cheery host will be chatting with new mom Jessica Simpson.

“I do feel pressure,” Couric told the Los Angeles Times during a recent trip to Los Angeles. “But I also feel like I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have some degree of self-confidence, if I didn’t feel I could do a good job. But I’m definitely not the next messiah of daytime television, and I hope people don’t see me that way.”

Couric isn’t the only one feeling the weight of expectations. Lake said it’s unfair to compare the newcomers to Winfrey.

“Now, a hit is getting a 1 rating,” she said. “The system is so different now. Even Oprah needed some time to get into her groove.”

The 43-year-old makes a return to daytime after her successful run with a ‘90s talk show, “Ricki Lake” — one that sometimes outrated Winfrey’s show. And she knows even more about being up against a parade of talk show hosts. In 1995 alone, two years after her show’s debut, Lake found herself up against Winfrey, Donahue, Geraldo Rivera, Maury Povich, Sally Jesse Raphael and numerous others.

“It was just as cluttered a decade ago, if not more so,” said Lake, whose recent stint on “Dancing With the Stars” was admittedly a way to highlight her name before her new show. “You just can’t think about it. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel or anything. There is only so much you can do to stand out.”

A recent taping of her new show focused on suicide and featured an appearance by her former “Dancing With the Stars” partner Mark Ballas, whose uncle committed suicide.

She and her peers insist their shows won’t be celebrity-driven.

“They can factor in, but this isn’t a promotional stop,” Probst said of his show, which is distributed by CBS but will air on NBC stations. The 50-year-old TV personality, who has served as the overlord of Tribal Councils on “Survivor” since 2000, said you won’t see voted-off contestants on his show: “This show is about the adventures of life, friendships, relationships.”

For Harvey, his truth is humor.

“I’ve been in the funny business for a long time,” said the veteran comedian, whose show will air in top markets on NBC stations, back to back with “The Ellen Degeneres Show.” “In terms of funny, you can’t really top what we’re going to do in daytime. The only person that’s funny is Ellen, and I’m going to be her lead-in, so until Ellen comes on, I’m the funniest person on TV.”

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