Katie Couric never saw it coming. Neither did Jane Pauley, Kris Jenner, Megan Mullally, Bethenny Frankel, Bonnie Hunt, or Ricki Lake 2.0. The impressive list of failed syndicated television maidens extends far and wide. Yet right before our eyes, Wayne Brady, Kevin Frazier, Byron Allen, Michael Strahan, Bill Bellamy, Terry Crews and Steve Harvey are slipping their toes into daytime’s enviable glass slipper.
It’s a good fit. With high energy, cultural authenticity and stellar ratings, African American males seeking to master Oprah Winfrey’s legendary television playbook have never been so well positioned.
Once upon a time, it was inconceivable that a man of color could ever rule the small screen. In 1956, legendary singer Nat “King” Cole became the first major African American performer to host his own variety network series. “It could be a turning point,” he was quoted as saying, “so that Negroes may be featured regularly on television.” Despite the quality of the iconic vocalist’s program, national advertising clients simply were not having it. A representative of Max Factor cosmetics claimed that a “negro” couldn’t sell lipstick for them. Even public utilities like the telephone company refused to allocate marketing dollars for the NBC show. Finally, when the Singer Sewing Machine Company proposed underwriting a western show, NBC made the financial decision to turn over the time slot.
While the racism Cole experienced at the dawn of the modern civil rights era proved to be a harsh astringent, the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president of the United States has created—in tangible, demonstrative ways—just the opposite effect. The result has been a proliferation of Black men with Cole and Obama’s swag and smarts, who have found their niche in an industry that saw growth of $5.16 billion in 2013—up from 2011’s $4.7 billion, according to Kantar Media.
Now, Hollywood’s gatekeepers are rethinking long-held assumptions of what and who consumers want to see. Take legal shows for example. Thanks to reigning daytime queen “Judge Judy,” court remains the highest rated genre in syndication. But one peek inside these strips and you’ll notice most are adjudicated by minorities. In the upcoming fall season, six of the eleven shows will feature Black women as judges (Lauren Lake, Faith Jenkins, Lynn Toler, Karen Mills-Francis, Tanya Acker and Mablean Ephriam). Even with Judge Joe Brown concluding a 15-year run last year and Judge Alex Ferrer’s show not returning after nine years, Judge Greg Mathis and I (America’s Court with Judge Ross) will still maintain the established tradition of men of color presiding over televised courtroom proceedings.
While “The Doctors” integrate Dr. Ian Smith into the medical mix, Bill Bellamy is now hosting “Let’s Ask America.” The same is true for “American Idol” finalist Jared Cotter over at “The Daily Buzz.” When “Entertainment Tonight” sought to replace anchor Rob Maciano, “The Insider’s” Kevin Frazier ultimately nabbed the gig and is now serving up the latest celebrity news with aplomb.
Hiring Black men to freshen-up programming isn’t a new phenomenon. Take the 2012 announcement that retired New York Giants defensive end and NFL commentator Michael Strahan would succeed 28-year veteran Regis Philbin on Disney/ABC’s now “Live with Kelly and Michael.” As detailed in a Los Angeles Times article by Greg Braxton and Meg James dissecting why daytime TV is embracing black entertainers, “Live” executives auditioned several individuals before selecting Strahan as the best fit alongside Kelly Ripa. Since besting 58 other competitors, Strahan has caused “Live’s” ratings to flourish post Philbin, while also silencing his critics. “Live” is currently ranked second (among other talk shows) behind “Dr. Phil” in both households and the key demographic advertisers covet. Quoting the Hollywood Reporter, “That is the strongest performance for ‘Live’ at this point in the season in six years.”
Emmy-winning Wayne Brady has also hit his stride as the first African American host on “Let’s Make A Deal.” As recently reported in Variety, Brady’s reincarnation of the beloved game show reached a ratings milestone the last week of January 2014, establishing highs for both its first half hour (3.71 million viewers) and second (4.22 million viewers), according to Nielsen.
Brady isn’t alone in the game genre. Terry Crews is stepping into the shoes of Cedric the Entertainer, who replaced Meredith Vieira as host of Disney/ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Not so ironically, “The Meredith Viera Show” (which debuted September 8) features a Black male, percussionist and singer Everett Bradley of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, as Viera’s in-house bandleader.
While Arsenio Hall failed to recapture the buzz he garnered in his original run of “The Arsenio Hall Show,” comedian Byron Allen and CEO of Entertainment Studios is going strong in his ninth season of the late-night laughfest “Comics Unleashed.”
These men notwithstanding, the fairest in the land right now is comedian, radio host, best-selling author, actor and producer Steve Harvey. While Rickey Smiley of “Dish Nation” appears on broadcast as well as his eponymous TV One cable sitcom, Harvey has shrewdly figured out how to sell lipstick and phones across multiple viewing platforms.
First it was the “Steve Harvey Morning Radio Show.” Next he became the first non-White male to host “Family Feud.” As soon as Harvey hit the stage, the show’s popularity exploded. In 2013, viewership for “Feud” soared 40 percent to an average of 7 million people an episode. As pointed out by Alex Ben Block of the Hollywood Reporter, “Feud” is up a massive 336 percent in total households and recently scored the show’s best performance since the advent of Nielsen’s People Meter technology in 1988. Harvey is directly responsible for the program surpassing “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” among women 25-54, and is now second only to “Judge Judy” among adults 25-54.
In 2012 “The Steve Harvey Show” took daytime by storm. By the sheer force of his personality, Harvey has now leap-frogged over Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, Steve Wilkos, and Bill Cunningham in terms of capturing the nation’s zeitgeist.
Finally, this past June Steve Harvey dominated the Daytime Emmy Awards, winning for both Outstanding Talk Show and Outstanding Game Show Host. As he closes in on “Dr. Oz,” gets within striking distance of “Dr. Phil,” and with Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak concluding their long syndicated runs soon, Harvey is unquestionably Oprah’s heir apparent.
Over half a century ago Nat “King” Cole dared to step inside the proverbial carriage and blaze a trail. Talk show host Montel Williams and “Today Show” anchor Bryant Gumbel then secured our spots at the ball. Now, Black men must continue captivating diverse audiences while extending our appeal to a new generation of daytime viewers.
Overall, the future looks bright. I say let the coronation begin!
Kevin Ross is host and producer of Entertainment Studios’ “America’s Court with Judge Ross,” seen weekdays at 8:00am on KCAL Channel 9. Follow him on Twitter at iambossross.