Phil Donahue's show not drawing crowds

MSNBC didn't give talk-show pioneer a ratings deadline

September 05, 2002|By Stephen Battaglio | Stephen Battaglio,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

TV talk-show legend Phil Donahue said he knows his ratings have to turn around soon if his comeback on MSNBC is going to last.

"If we don't make noise in six months, it's going to be hard for me to tell my family that I was treated unfairly," Donahue said.

Donahue's highly publicized 8 p.m. show is off to a sluggish start in its first six weeks, drawing about half the viewers watching CNN's new entry in the time period, Connie Chung Tonight.

Last week, his show averaged 365,000 viewers to Chung's 686,000, according to Nielsen Media Research. Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor with Bill O'Reilly is the dominant leader among news networks in the time period, with about 2 million watching.

Donahue, a pioneer in daytime talk and a ratings leader in the 1970s and '80s, was signed by MSNBC with the hope that he would revive the third-ranked cable news channel and trump the competition.

MSNBC editor in chief Jerry Nachman attributed Donahue's woes to the show's relative newness.

"There's nothing harder to do than disabuse people of their habits of getting news and information," said Nachman. "It's just a consequence of people having to reacquaint themselves with Phil and become dependent on his performance and form new affiliations. That never happens fast."

The future of Donahue's show, as well as MSNBC's talk lineup, has been the subject of much speculation lately.

It was Nachman - whose nightly show precedes Donahue's - who raised the issue of how much patience MSNBC's parent, NBC, will have with the new prime-time lineup.

"You don't think we get two years," Nachman said. "Do we get a year?"

"I don't think we have that much time," Donahue said.

MSNBC spokeswoman Cheryl Daley said Donahue's comments were his "personal speculation" and that executives at the network have not given him a timetable for improving the ratings.

Most TV executives are more worried about showing year-to-year growth, and MSNBC could claim that in August.

Still, it can't be encouraging for MSNBC, which is emphasizing a political talk format it claims is more balanced politically than ratings leader Fox News Channel.

Connie Chung Tonight has featured a strong concentration of true crime stories, particularly about missing children, and seemed better attuned to the news appetite this summer, said Andrew Tyndall, president of ADT Research.

Nachman said it isn't fair to draw conclusions from ratings in the summer, when viewers may turn off the TV. That's especially true at MSNBC, with its young audience, its executives say.

Nachman went so far as to circulate a memo about a newspaper story that called attention to Donahue's ratings after four weeks, saying it proved the reporter was either ignorant of TV history or malicious.

"Basically, you can see this as spring training and the real competition starts after Labor Day," Tyndall said. "If you're going to work out the kinks, this is when you should do it."

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