Oprah hopes Palin has the right stuff to win back viewers

By Lisa de Moraes
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Oprah Winfrey, on a campaign to climb back from last season's ratings slump, will attempt to kiss and make up with conservative viewers on Nov. 16 when she has Sarah Palin on her syndicated talk show .

You may have noticed that the appearance by the former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate is happening smack dab in the middle of the November ratings derby.

It's also the day before Palin's new book, "Going Rogue: An American Life," is scheduled to hit bookstores.

Oprah's production company, Harpo, claims it will be Palin's first interview about the book. We'll see about that.

More important, Harpo also claims it will be the first time Oprah and Palin will have met, and Harpo should know.

It's not just another show booking for Oprah. She's going whole hog this season to try to recover from the ratings tumble she took last season when her audience slid to under 7 million viewers. And, during one awful week in July, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" suffered its smallest ratings since its debut way back in 1985.

Industry navel gazers speculated Oprah had turned off some of her conservative viewers -- or, more accurately, they had turned her off -- when she not only endorsed then presidential candidate Barack Obama but even campaigned for him. (Palin, of course, was the running mate of Obama's rival, Sen. John McCain.)

It was the first time Oprah had stripped off her apolitical veneer and publicly endorsed a political candidate. At the time, Oprah told CNN's Larry King she did it because "what [Obama] stands for" was "worth me going out on a limb for."

And her ratings took a tumble, though hers was not the only syndicated show to lose audience last season and she still managed to wind up at the top of the syndication heap at season's end.

Even so, Oprah has largely abandoned her whole aspirational programming mantra this season and gone in for the more purely commercial.

That has translated into the longest-two-day-interview-ever with Whitney Houston to kick off Houston's latest comeback attempt; Oprah's deliciously detailed interview with Erin Andrews, the ESPN reporter who was unknowingly videotaped nude in a hotel room by some stalker guy; and her highly touted, things-could-get-rough, face-to-face meeting between former world champion boxers Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield -- their first meeting since Tyson bit off part of Holyfield's ear during a 1997 WBA heavyweight title fight.

And now, add to that list Palin, whose book was No. 2 on Amazon.com's bestseller list Tuesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, "Say You're One of Them," a collection of short stories by Nigerian Uwem Akpan -- the latest selection by Oprah's Book Club -- was ranked No. 84.

We rest our case.

'Big' trouble

Is it that no good can come of winning a CBS reality series, or is CBS's casting department simply the Very Best Ever at finding folks who are dumb as hair to put into their reality shows? Or maybe Massachusetts is just not a good state for CBS reality show winners. We report, you decide:

One day after original "Survivor" winner Richard Hatch was let out of a Massachusetts hoosegow upon completing his sentence for not paying taxes on his $1 million "Survivor" prize, the guy who won the last round of CBS's "Big Brother" was thrown into a Massachusetts slammer after allegedly telling a government witness he had used his $500,000 prize to buy thousands of oxycodone pills to resell at a profit.

Adam Jasinski, 31, won the bucks on the edition of "Big Brother" that aired in the first half of 2008. To win that money, Jasinski was sequestered with a bunch of other people in the Big Brother House in Studio City, Calif., under constant surveillance. Inmates voted every week who among them would be evicted.

Jasinski was deemed to be the most deserving houseguest of that edition, which made perfect sense given that he was the guy who got fired from his job at the United Autism Foundation while he was sequestered in the "BB" house because he referred to autistic children as "retards" on national television.

Anyway, Jasinski was arrested Saturday after showing a snitch a sock filled with oxycodone, the Associated Press reported, based on a Drug Enforcement Administration affidavit which Jasinski told an agent he was using his "Big Brother" winnings to buy thousands of oxycodone pills and has been reselling them along the East Coast for the past several months.

Jasinski now faces being sequestered in a different kind of Big House for a maximum of 20 years -- and a $1 million fine.

'Biggest' spinoff

NBC, which said it was giving over its 10 p.m. hour Monday through Friday to a Jay Leno-hosted comedy/talk show so that it could "surgically focus" on developing the best and brightest scripted programming for the rest of prime time, has announced it's going to clone its most successful prime-time series so far this season.

"The Biggest Loser."

Yes, a weight-loss competition series. Not scripted.

NBC has ordered eight episodes of "Losing It With Jillian," starring Jillian Michaels, the popular fitness expert from "The Biggest Loser."

Each week she will "invade a different family" from somewhere around the country -- unhealthy families, the network says, which we're guessing is a euphemism for "fat" -- and "give them her own characteristic brand of tough love."

Think "What Not to Wear" meets "Biggest Loser." But instead of a celebrity hair cutter, Michaels will be joined by celebrity chef Curtis Stone, who will "enhance Michaels' efforts by ridding the family's kitchen of all unhealthy foods and educating them on proper nutrition, healthy ingredients, cooking tips and recipes," NBC said in Tuesday's announcement.

The new show is being produced by Reveille, the company that produces "The Biggest Loser," partnered with former "Oprah" executive producer Ellen Rakieten.

Last May, not long after NBC announced Leno was getting the 10 p.m. hour, an NBC exec explained this would enable the network to concentrate on developing terrific scripted programming for 8-10 p.m. weeknights. But that exec was NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman, and he's gone -- and "The Biggest Loser" is, excluding Sunday football, the most popular prime-time show on NBC's lineup this season, edging out "Law & Order: SVU" and "The Office."

Among the younger, 18-to-49-year-old viewers who are the Holy Grail of NBC, Tuesday's two-hour "Biggest Loser" regularly beats its competition in its second hour, including the popular "Dancing With the Stars" results show on ABC, CBS's new "NCIS: Los Angeles," Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" and CW's "Melrose Place."

And, for reasons I'm sure someone can explain, "The Biggest Loser" is this season enjoying its strongest fall cycle since 2004.

During a phone news conference group hug with The Reporters Who Cover Television, The TV Column's "The Biggest Loser" bureau chief, Emily Yahr, asked whether, since the two-hour "The Biggest Loser" is already feeding Leno his biggest audience of the week, this meant we were about to see two weeknights of "Biggest Loser"-ish programming between 8 and 10 p.m.

"Good question," responded exec producer Mark Koops. "Obviously, that's something we will discuss hand-in-hand with the network. . . . The show's being created to be both compatible with 'Loser' and strong enough to stand on its own, so I think that's a question to be answered down the road."

This is Hollywood-speak for "yes, probably -- hopefully."

Oscar buzz

Adam Shankman, the guy who directed "Hairspray," and who is also an accomplished choreographer, not to mention the new judge on Fox's dance competition series "So You Think You Can Dance," is going to produce the next Academy Awards broadcast for ABC.

Shankman will be partnered with Bill Mechanic, an industry suit who's the former chairman and chief executive of Fox Filmed Entertainment.

Yeah, whatevs.

But, getting b ack to Shankman: He actually performed in an Oscar ceremony, once upon a time, as a dancer.

Shankman promised this year's Academy Awards will "celebrate the world's collective love of movies and provide a fun escape from the difficult times we're living in."

The news about Shankman triggered a tsunami of "the Oscar show will have a super-major song-and-dance element this year" blogging among The Reporters Who Cover Television.

Shankman's directing credits also include "Bedtime Stories" and "The Wedding Planner" -- but don't hold that against him.

His upcoming projects include "Bob: The Musical" and a remake of "Bye Bye Birdie."

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