We’re one month away from the series premiere of Disney-ABC Domestic Television’s “Katie,” the nationally syndicated live daily talk show starring Katie Couric. This program is hugely important to ABC, the daytime division of which remains in dire need of exciting new blood after the departures of syndication superstars Regis Philbin and Oprah Winfrey; the cancellations of long-running soap operas “All My Children” and “One Life to Live”; the lukewarm response to “The Chew,” the bland cooking show that replaced “AMC,” and the embarrassing failure of “The Revolution,” the ill-formed show that replaced the vital and popular “OLTL.”
Can “Katie” save the day, or is ABC’s daytime lineup -- once the most robust at any network -- doomed to a future of mediocrity? I have no doubt that Couric and her co-executive producer, former NBC Universal chairman and “Today” executive producer Jeff Zucker, will deliver a lively hour of daily afternoon television, or that the two are up to the task, given their past experiences. The questions are, can “Katie” draw a large female audience to ABC in mid-afternoon, and will the demographic and economic profile of that audience be satisfying enough to make the show a true success?
Interestingly, some of the strongest support for “Katie” could be the lead-in provided by “General Hospital,” the show ABC once hoped to kill off to make room for Couric, but that will now move ahead one hour to become its all-important lead-in. (The afternoon lineup that ABC hoped most of its stations would eventually have in place when it started making a royal mess of things was “The Chew,” “The Revolution” and “Katie.”) “GH” has some renewed traction right now, thanks largely to the talents of new executive producer Frank Valentini, who was skillfully making “One Life to Live” more entertaining and higher-rated than it had been in years when ABC decided to end it.
“General Hospital” has always been very popular with women, perhaps less so during the last decade when it became unrelentingly dark and misogynistic, but not to the extent that the damage cannot be undone, as Valentini is currently proving. So if the creative team at “GH” can effectively shift focus away from the male mobsters that have long dominated the show and onto the many adult women on its canvas, and tell stories centered on romance and family rather than madness and mob hits, it might just draw in more of the very viewers who are predisposed to stick around for Couric. (If younger “GH” viewers stick around as well, that’s even better.)
The main reason I suggest putting more emphasis on the “adult” women on “GH” is that I believe adult characters tend to attract more daytime viewers than teen and early twenty-something characters, who were a huge draw for high school- and college-aged viewers in the ‘70s and ‘80s but were less so in the ‘90s and the Aughts. Given their many entertainment and engagement options and distractions, I don’t think the kids will come back to this soap, or any soap, without a wholesale reimagining of the genre, something that likely won’t happen on broadcast but could and should happen on basic cable.
Accordingly, “GH” could do much worse than to gain strength with women 35- or 40- or even 50-plus, the perfect audience for the all-important “Katie.” I say this about Couric’s audience in part because of conversations I had with a number of 20- and 30-something critics and reporters after her press conference at the recent Television Critics Association tour. They all said the same thing: They have no interest in watching her new show. It’s not that they dislike her. They simply don’t see any reason to devote time to her show, because they aren’t interested in hearing what she has to say about any of the big or small issues in their lives. There are plenty of other places to go for such things, they told me. Also, given their ages, they had little (if any) attachment to Couric from her time on “Today” or “The CBS Evening News.”
I’m sure ABC doesn’t think for a minute that when “Katie” moves into the mid-afternoon time periods that have been home to “General Hospital” since many baby boomers were youngsters it will suddenly attract millions of teens and 20-somethings to the time slot and the daypart, as “GH” once did. ABC instead is going to have to settle for women 40- or 50-plus, who are much more likely to make a daily habit of watching a talk show featuring a middle-aged newswoman, no matter her topics or guests. Whether or not younger women will watch “Katie” at other times via various mobile and time-shifting options remains to be seen, but if the candid remarks from those 20-something journalists mean anything, I would tend to doubt it.