By Elizabeth Wagmeister
As Drew Barrymore digs herself into a deeper hole regarding the return of her daytime talk show, lost in the debate is a conversation about the peculiar nature of syndicated TV.
One week ago, Barrymore ignited a firestorm when she announced her talk show would be returning amid the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. In the week since, tensions worsened and Barrymore, normally well-liked for her good-natured personality, intensified that criticism when she doubled down with a second, now-deleted, video message. If anything, her attempt to quell any criticism had the opposite effect.
Barrymore is at the eye of the storm, but she is not the only daytime host returning this upcoming week. “The Jennifer Hudson Show” and CBS’ “The Talk,” which is not syndicated, will launch new seasons on Monday, Sept. 18, as well as Sherri Shepherd’s “Sherri” and Karamo Brown’s “Karamo,” though those two shows are not struck or covered by the WGA, like “Tamron Hall” and “Live with Kelly & Mark,” which have already been back on the air. And ABC’s “The View,” which employs WGA writers, never ceased production during the strike, at a time when many others, like “The Talk” and “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” immediately halted last spring.
Some of those shows have received some heat for returning (including picketing outside a taping of “The Talk” this week, and White House Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre pulling out of an appearance on “The View,” citing “respect for striking writers”). Barrymore, however, was the only host to attempt to get ahead of her return beforehand on social media — declaring that she’d be working during the strikes — immediately making her a target.
Strangely, this wasn’t part of Barrymore’s attempt to explain her return: Syndicated TV shows have contractual obligations to deliver new episodes to their local station partners. Unlike network shows – like “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” or “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” which have permanent real estate on a network’s schedule – nationally syndicated daytime talk shows like “The Drew Barrymore Show” are required to produce a certain amount of episodes to more than 200 local stations throughout each television season.
In other words, this was a business decision — and not one that Barrymore made alone. Hosts like Barrymore are under contract with major media production companies to perform their hosting duties, and like any regular job, they eventually have to show up to work. Syndicated talk shows are typically required to deliver 35 to 40 weeks of new episodes to their station partners. If they don’t, they can lose their show.
“We have 200 clients that we have to deliver original episodes to. It’s not a network show,” a daytime talk show employee says. “With late night, you have one client: the network.”
Now, shows like “Drew” and “Jennifer Hudson” could have pushed back their premiere dates and reconstructed their yearly production schedules, in hopes that the strikes would soon come to an end. But with no end seemingly in sight in the current WGA and AMPTP impasse, local stations — and advertisers — are expecting original content this fall from the shows for which they are paying a hefty license fee to carry.
“In theory, you could push back your debut, if you’re concerned about the strike,” says Frank Cicha, executive vice president of programming for Fox Television Stations, the station group that carries many national syndicated talk shows, including “The Jennifer Hudson Show.” But, he adds, “there are already more repeats than anybody needs, so the idea of your main talk shows not coming back, that gets a little scary.”
Indeed, in 2023, when streaming attracts more viewers in the U.S. than linear programming, the talk show market is fractured. Daytime lineups are now filled with repeat strips of “The Dr. Phil Show,” “Judge Judy,” “Jerry Springer,” “Maury” and more shows from the past. Those old episodes may seem stale, but they boast familiar faces and are easy money — and ratings — for distributors.
Original talk shows like “Drew,” “Jennifer Hudson,” “Kelly Clarkson,” “Tamron Hall,” “Sherri” and “Live With Kelly and Mark,” on the other hand, are expensive productions for an era when fewer people are watching in daytime. (“Live,” “Sherri” and “Tamron Hall” are non-WGA shows.)
“More repeats would just be a quicker death march for syndication,” says Cicha. “It’s a critical time, and if there’s not a way to do original programming, then you can see the end of national syndication.”
But for the writers, who also feel they are on a death march, it’s important to note that they’re fighting for better wages and working conditions in a strike that has now surpassed four months.
Barrymore’s own writers have spoken out against production returning, while her comments have been flooded with quips such as, “We need E.T. to tell her to go home again.” Comedian Andy Richter posted, “A talk show is not a charity or a humanitarian campaign, it is a money-making machine that can be a fun way to spend an hour. The reason every talk show exists it to publicize products; their primary function is to be the attractive commercial filling in between actual commercials. To act otherwise, especially during a strike, is just carrying water for the bosses in a deluded self-important bucket.”
But for those working in daytime, their livelihood depends on these talk shows — each of which employ anywhere from 150 to 200 staffers, including two to four writers on the team.
In releasing a statement to support their host, CBS Media Ventures, which distributes “The Drew Barrymore Show,” said the show is moving forward “with important consideration to our staff and crew comprised of over 150 people, as well as our loyal viewers.”
Staffers from other talk shows feel the same. “We have to come back, or else hundreds of people are out of work,” an employee on a current talk show tells Variety. “Stations will pull us right off the air — they’ll put us in the middle of the night, and we’ll stay in the middle of the night. That’s just how it works.”
An employee from a different daytime show echoes this sentiment: “If even one major station group pulls out and says they’re not going to run our show, even if they have repeats, that affects ratings and advertising. It affects everything. Why would we risk letting a show die and letting people lose their jobs permanently if we can do a show without violating rules?”
“The strike doesn’t look like it’s anywhere close to being settled. The two sides can’t even agree who owes who the next offer,” this individual adds, referring to the WGA and AMPTP. “Are we supposed to wait around forever?”
All syndicated and non-syndicated talk shows covered by the WGA that are premiering next week or have already returned — “Drew,” “Jennifer Hudson,” “The View” and “The Talk” — have said that they are working in compliance with the unions and are returning without writers who will be back once a new WGA contract is in place. The hosts are all cleared under SAG-AFTRA’s Network Television Code to perform their hosting duties.
But the WGA says otherwise. A spokesperson for the union tells Variety, “Drew Barrymore should not be on the air while her writers are on strike fighting for a fair deal. In reality, shows like this cannot operate without writing, and that is struck work.”
Talk show staffers who have spoken with Variety anonymously, in order to protect their shows and their jobs, have expressed confusion with the WGA’s messaging over the past week that all work on talk shows requires writers.
Certain daytime shows — like “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” — are more comedy-heavy, which would require heavy lifting from a larger writing team, but many talk shows — like “The View” — are heavily unscripted and off-the-cuff, these staffers say. On talk shows, it is typical for producers to create bullet points from research or craft questions for guest interviews, and those roles have never been the responsibility of WGA writers on talk shows, who typically are tasked with writing jokes, monologues, sketches and extended intros. (Those elements have now been scrapped from talk shows until writers return.)
But WGA members believe that any form of writing — even notes written by producers — are a violation, though when asked by Variety, a spokesperson for the union was not able to provide any specific language from the current WGA agreement to support this.
“Since the beginning of time, interviews have always been written by producers,” says a talk show veteran. “They are bullet points.”
While this is the most contentious writers strike, largely in part due to immediate reaction on social media, this is not the first time unions have been at war with talk shows. Back in 2007, popular hosts like Oprah Winfrey, Rachael Ray and Dr. Phil McGraw returned to the airwaves during the WGA strike, but no one got more heat than DeGeneres, who at the time was four years into her show that would last nearly two decades.
At the time, Telepictures Productions, which produced “Ellen,” said it had “contractual obligations to continue to deliver original programming to the 220 stations that carry the program.” One of DeGeneres’ writers even had some compassion on the picket line, saying of the host, “She had no choice… She’s in a very bad position.”
Talk show veteran Hilary Estey McLoughlin — who oversaw “Ellen” as president of Telepictures from 2006 to 2013, and was also in charge of “The Tyra Banks Show” and “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” — recalls the pressure the show faced to return in 2007, in the height of daytime talk’s popularity.
“The business certainly wasn’t in the same kind of turmoil and volatility as it is now. It was a different world we were living in,” says McLoughlin. But, “we were concerned about Ellen and how she was going to be perceived, and how we could move forward and be sensitive in trying to figure that out. The other concern we had to face is that there were so many people that were going to be out of work, if we didn’t continue to do the show – hundreds and hundreds of people. We were in the same position [as today].”
McLoughlin — who is now founder and co-CEO of NY27 Productions — has never met Barrymore, but believes that bringing back her show, like other talk shows, was likely a large conversation with the sales and distribution team, station partners and advertisers. Ultimately, it is a business decision and not a choice that is made on a whim.
“There’s no way that the host is deciding that alone,” McLoughlin says. “If anything, the host is always the one that you’re the most concerned about because they’re going to be the lightning rod for controversy. People blame them.”
Michael Teicher — who was exec VP of media sales at Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution, which handled “Ellen,” and is now founder of the consulting firm TripleT Consulting — recalls conversations with advertisers during the 2007 strike. “I wouldn’t say our advertisers were pressuring us, but they were certainly concerned and weren’t shy to express what kind of impact this could have,” he says.
“There are certain ratings guarantees that are promised to advertisers, and repeats certainly don’t garner as high of ratings as originals,” Teicher adds.
While most talk shows are returning on Monday, “The Kelly Clarkson Show” will not. The show, which has moved cross country from the Universal lot to 30 Rock for its upcoming fifth season, is currently in pre-production and building its new set in New York. A source close to the Clarkson show says no writers are working and filming has not begun for the new season, and a spokesperson for NBCUniversal confirmed that an airdate has not been announced yet.
“All the shows are going to probably end up coming back because they have to, based on their contracts and the fact that the stations will have a big gaping hole otherwise. Their contracts commit them to actually going on the air,” McLoughlin says.
Late night shows have the luxury of not responding to station groups, given that they are not syndicated, but they do have to respond to advertisers and they do have staff members out of work. So far, the late night broadcast hosts have not discussed any plans to return, but this week, Bill Maher announced that his show “Real Time” would be returning to HBO without his writers — a decision that the WGA called “disappointing,” stating that it seems impossible for Maher, a WGA member himself, to not conduct any writing duties.
Maher said he will “honor the spirit of the strike” by not doing a monologue or other written pieces, and acknowledged that his show will not be as good without his writers. “It has been five months, and it is time to bring people back to work,” Maher wrote. “The writers have important issues that I sympathize with, and hope they are addressed to their satisfaction, but they are not the only people with issues, problems, and concerns.”
With no imminent end in sight for the strike, more late night hosts may have to grapple with when — or if — they will return without their writers, like Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert did during the 2007-2008 strike. But for now, all eyes are on daytime.
“It’s a very difficult decision to try to figure out how to how to move forward, even if you are within the range of what’s acceptable within the [union],” McLoughlin says.
“When you have an obligation to the stations, it’s very difficult to take a stance and say you’re not going to go back on,” she adds. “It’ll be a contractual breach, at some point.”
A Variety and iHeartRadio Podcast
The Business of Entertainment