- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2002

Rosie O'Donnell gave a brassy, sentimental farewell to daytime television yesterday, capped by a winking message from her not-so-secret crush, Tom Cruise.

Miss O'Donnell, who last week won her sixth Daytime Emmy in six years as best talk-show host, is leaving to raise a family and do other things. She ended her swan song onstage at New York's Rockefeller Center surrounded by members of her staff.

Talk-show ratings are plummeting, with daytime TV viewers increasingly likely to watch news networks, courtroom shows or relationship programs such as TLC's "A Baby Story" or to turn off the set.

"Live With Regis and Kelly" is alone among the top 10 talk shows in not losing viewers this year. Jerry Springer, Rikki Lake, Montel Williams and even daytime queen Oprah Winfrey four years removed from her planned retirement have seen ratings drop.

Sally Jessy Raphael also called it quits, ending a two-decade run this week. Jenny Jones narrowly avoided cancellation. The E Entertainment network even pulled the plug on "Talk Soup," a show based on funny clips from talk shows, as source material dried up.

Talk-show ratings have been slipping for at least five years, and that decline has accelerated lately, says Marc Berman, a television analyst for Media Week Online.

"The single-issue show as a genre has had a great run," says Jim Paratore, president of the syndicating company Telepictures Productions. "It's grown a little tired and has a sameness to it, and the audience is looking for something fresh. There's an opportunity over the next couple of years to breathe new life into the format."

Arguably, the last person to do that was Miss O'Donnell.

When "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" began in 1996, she instantly won fans with her encyclopedic knowledge about, and love for, pop culture. She updated a format popularized by Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas.

Even Miss O'Donnell wasn't immune to audience erosion, however; her viewership is down 19 percent this year. Miss O'Donnell, who came out as a lesbian earlier this year, says in her just-published autobiography, "Find Me," that the audience doesn't see the real her on her show.

"I have had the most amazing six years of my life creatively," she said backstage at the Daytime Emmys ceremony last week. "I didn't want to continue doing it just because I could."

Mr. Paratore, whose company produces Miss O'Donnell's show, recalls sitting in a hotel room with her before the program debuted and hearing her say, "I will do it for five years, be a big hit, and leave and go raise a family."

"I said, 'from your lips to God's ears,'" Mr. Paratore says.

He got an extra year. That didn't stop him from begging for more.

In "Find Me," Miss O'Donnell describes how an executive she identifies only as "Jim" offered her an insane amount of money to renew her contract for two years, "more money than a human being could ever spend in one lifetime."

Her rejection of the offer probably was a wise choice, one industry expert says. "After a while, if you don't want to do it anymore, it shows," says Bill Carroll, an analyst of the syndication market for Katz Television.

Comic Caroline Rhea will replace Miss O'Donnell next fall, and Telepictures has signed Ellen DeGeneres for a talk show to begin in autumn 2003.

Among the personalities pushed by other companies is Wayne Brady, who had some success with a prime-time summer replacement variety hour and even has snagged Miss O'Donnell's time slot on some stations.

"The biggest challenge for Wayne Brady and Caroline Rhea is not to duplicate Rosie O'Donnell, but to complement," Mr. Carroll says. "Syndicated TV requires almost an immediate embracing. If it doesn't happen, you're gone."

Roseanne, Martin Short, Dr. Laura and Howard Mandel are a few of the prominent hosts whose programs have failed over the past few years.

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