08 September 2010

How Far Can Oprah's Universe Reach?

The Wall Street Journal
Oprah Sets Up Decorating Guru Nate Berkus With His Own Show, Betting Her Fans Will Follow

At a rehearsal for his new daytime TV show, Nate Berkus had a problem. A set of 25 paper placemats he was about to pitch to viewers cost $40. "I think that's too much money," he said during the walk through. He sent producers scrambling to track down a $1 roll of wrapping paper that could be cut into perfect rectangles. Now, Mr. Berkus faces a far bigger problem: Launching a talk show at a time when millions of women are watching less and less television during the day.

The 38-year-old interior designer is getting the biggest launch possible in daytime television. Oprah Winfrey is rewarding Mr. Berkus with his own show after he has appeared regularly on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" for the past eight years. On Sept. 13, Sony Pictures Television and Ms. Winfrey's production company Harpo Studios will roll out "The Nate Berkus Show," a syndicated talk show aimed at Ms. Winfrey's legions of devoted viewers.

Mr. Berkus, part design expert, part self-help guru, fashions himself as the everyman interior designer. He favors soft neutral hues mixed with loud pillows, warm rugs and vintage lamps. "I've never been the snobby decorator guy," he said last month as he reclined in his dressing room on an L-shaped gray sofa, a graphic throw pillow he designed under his arm. "Everyone needs to turn their spaces and their lives into something that works for them."

Just as her book club has spawned dozens of best sellers, Ms. Winfrey has launched some of the biggest names in daytime TV. "Dr. Phil," "Rachael Ray," and "The Dr. Oz Show," started with appearances on "Oprah." The hosts have built empires of their own, sprouting magazines, self-help books and cookbooks.

"When the bird is ready to fly, she lets them go," says Sheri Salata, one of the two presidents at Harpo Studios.

It's a key time for the latest—and possibly the last—host to graduate from what the industry calls Oprah U. Next September, Ms. Winfrey will end "Oprah" after nearly three decades to focus on her new cable network, the Oprah Winfrey Network or OWN. Fans will face a daytime void, creating an opportunity for her handpicked crop of TV offspring.

"Oprah" is the ultimate, and one of the only, successful launching pads for daytime stars, says Steve Mosko, president of Sony Pictures Television. Most local television stations don't have the funds to launch their own talk shows—the way Ms. Winfrey got her start in Chicago. Daytime shows with big-name hosts like "On-Air with Ryan Seacrest," "The Sharon Osbourne Show" and "The Bonnie Hunt Show," have flopped in recent years.

"In a post-Oprah world, having a Harpo show with really the last talent featured on her show was attractive," says John Wallace, president of NBC Local Media, which purchased the rights to air "The Nate Berkus Show" on 10 NBC-owned stations nationwide. The show will air on a total of 177 local stations or in 96% of the country, according to Sony Pictures Television.

Harpo Studios executives noticed last year that when Mr. Berkus visited "Oprah" ratings spiked an average of 20% among the show's core demographic of women ages 25 to 54. "Nate has the ability to be himself which in itself is a gift in TV," Ms. Winfrey says. Plus, "he has great style and is a cutie pie."

The self-taught son of designer Nancy Golden, who appears on cable networks HGTV and DIY, Mr. Berkus worked at an auction house before he founded his own Chicago interior design firm at age 24. "He was the one in the kitchen with his mom when the rest of the kids were watching the football game," says his show's executive producer Terry Murphy.

The show is what Ms. Murphy calls "info-tainment." Each hour typically will include a celebrity interview, usually related to d├ęcor, as well as general lifestyle tips. Mr. Berkus will use a technology he calls the "Instant Design Studio," which is a screen similar to the one CNN's John King uses to show election results and on which Mr. Berkus can virtually redecorate rooms.

In a recently taped show at his New York set—made to look like a living-room with a wall of sparsely decorated white bookshelves, bunches of hydrangea and leather armchairs—Mr. Berkus gave a couple advice on preparing for a family reunion. He surprised a college freshman who grew up homeless with a fully furnished dorm room. "The bath caddy will change your life," he told the teen.

Television producers used to love talk shows because they were cheap to make and their advice-dispensing, celebrity-guest format created easy product placement opportunities. But these days advice-seekers can do a quick Internet search and reality TV has made celebrities ubiquitous.

In today's crowded marketplace, even the "Oprah" seal of approval won't guarantee huge ratings, says Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media, a media-planning and ad-placement firm. "Nate Berkus may be the syndication hit in 2010, but he's not going to be the new Oprah. No one is."

"Oprah" averaged about 6.5 million viewers daily in the season that ended in May, down from more than 10 million in the 1990s, according to Nielsen Co. Last season, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," considered a hit, drew about 3.2 million viewers daily, ratings that would have led to cancellation a decade ago.

The openly-gay Mr. Berkus fits into an increasingly common TV model. Recent shows like "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style" have successfully cast gay men as women-friendly style advisers. Advice from a female host can seem shrill, and from a straight man it may seem sexual, says Katherine Sender, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written about reality TV and gay marketing. "From a gay man it's like sisterly advice."

Mr. Berkus, a Chicago-based interior designer, made his first appearance on "Oprah" in 2002, when producers asked him to redo a 319-square-foot studio apartment. He stayed up for 48 hours to complete the project, took out trash himself, and flagged down garbage men with $100 bills to help clear old appliances.

Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Berkus became closer two years later when his partner died in the Tsunami during a vacation in Sri Lanka. Ms. Winfrey helped raise money for charity in his partner's name.

To help Mr. Berkus prepare for 175 shows a year, Ms. Winfrey watched test shows, promos and reviewed plans for the set at the CBS Broadcast Center. She advised Mr. Berkus to keep his signature five o'clock shadow but dress nicer than the torn Levis and fitted tees he often wore on her show. She thought he should expand a segment called "Nate's Crate," in which he surprises recipients with the contents of a crate filled with giveaways from blueprints for a room makeover to a car.

Not everyone who appears on "Oprah" becomes a hit. Motivational speaker and "Oprah" guest Iyanla Vanzant's attempt to launch her own show "Iyanla" in 2001 was short-lived. "They tried to make her me," Ms. Winfrey says, explaining why the show failed. Ms. Vanzant agrees with Ms. Winfrey's assessment. "They molded me into something else. I wasn't innocent in all of it. I let them do it," she says.

And, of course, hosts like Rosie O'Donnell and Ms. DeGeneres are daytime successes without an "Oprah" launch.

Mr. Berkus says he's a "take-away guy," not a "tip-away guy." The difference, he says, is "'take away' is 'oh, I found this great idea and Nate will show me how to translate it into something that's my own.' 'Tip away' is you buy this and then you glue gun this and then you spray paint this."

At the recent taping, he called a giddy thirty-something women up on stage. She shrieked in humiliation when an image of her cluttered study popped up onto his "Instant Design Studio" screen. "No one is judging you," Mr. Berkus assured her as he swept his finger over an unused wall and transformed it into a built-in, white Pottery Barn bookshelf. The crowd let loose an "ahh!"

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