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Steve Harvey hits on a winning daytime formula

STEVE JOHNSON, Chicago Tribune

Publication: The Day

Published April 29. 2013 4:00AM

"Steve Harvey" is not everyone's cup of afternoon tea.

Devotees of, say, "The Colbert Report" will find "Harvey's" right-down-the-middle humor uninspiring. Funny newspaper headlines and jokes about how men behave versus how women behave - where have we seen that before?

"Dr. Phil" fans might consider the veteran stand-up comic's version of common sense to be delivered with too soft a touch. And some women in the target audience could be turned off by Harvey's residual horndog tendencies, as when he recently told three single women over 40 to let themselves be pursued by a man because "you are everything he's got to have. All these legs, these dresses, this hair. Breasts. Men got to have all of this."

But whatever the individual pieces of "Steve Harvey" are doing, the package as a whole is adding up to remarkable success for the first-year syndicated talk show, the new tenant classing up Jerry Springer's old studio in Chicago's NBC Tower.

Its ratings power is validating the decision to portray Harvey as a recognizable and fully mainstream figure: stern-but-loving father, traditionally masculine husband, a man who will tell the women watching what really goes on in the male brain, even when the thinking gets explicitly anatomical.

The show, cannily, is just loose enough to let Harvey's mind - trained in raucous comedy theaters - threaten to undermine its traditional elements, but tight enough that it never fails to be fully of its genre, the daytime syndicated talk show.

And however often you can see Harvey delivering a less-than-compelling question or fighting back the stand-up's urge to utter some crude innuendo, the show has a rare quality for daytime or, indeed, any TV: a grounding in emotion and, even, altruism.

Just last week, Harvey showcased his charity effort, with Disney and Essence magazine, to help kids achieve their dreams. He devoted a long, touching segment to a San Francisco group that gives troubled teens a second chance to prove themselves, in a cafe workplace setting.

"What I always wanted this show to do," Harvey said on the air, "was just point out how people change people's lives."

The blend of good deeds and old ideas is working. The show is battling it out for top new syndicated talker of the year with former "Today" anchor Katie Couric's "Katie," while new shows fronted by talk veteran Ricki Lake and "Survivor" host Jeff Probst have faltered.

"Harvey" outperforms its lead-in, it builds audience throughout the hour, it's been building audience during the year, and, because it doesn't rely on celebrities to spike ratings, the audience has tended to be consistent, David Goldberg, CEO of Endemol North America, the reality TV producer for which "Harvey" is the first foray into daytime talk, said in an interview.

It's proven a good match, too, said Goldberg, with Ellen DeGeneres' talk show, which follows it in many markets. Harvey is a stand-up who dances on his show and talks to real people. DeGeneres is a stand-up who dances and talks to celebrities.

For the calendar year, "Harvey" is averaging about 2.1 million viewers, an improvement from its average of 1.9 million for the entire TV season. And in the key demographics, the show will tell you, it is the top new daytime show with women 18-49, a distinction it also claims among women 25-54 in 2013.

The hairsplitting tells you, of course, that you can also find categories in which "Katie" leads (total viewers, women 25 to 54 for the entire season), but the bigger story is these are the two most successful new talk shows since "Dr. Oz's" 2009 debut. And while "Katie" had publicity and expectations in its favor, "Harvey" has been able to almost sneak up on people.

The Hollywood Reporter, in a March piece on the show's surprising success, asked, "Could he be the next Oprah?"

We needn't worry about another Michigan Avenue street closure just yet, but certainly "Harvey" is basking in the success and this week is taking a sort of victory lap as it enters its first May sweep ratings period. An upcoming show featuring, as a guest, Dr. Phil, the ratings leader in daytime talk, taped Tuesday.

And last Friday's guest is no less a personage than Oprah Winfrey.

"Having both Oprah and Phil come on the show is really an indication the show has arrived," Goldberg said.

Endemol pursued Harvey over several years, the executive said. The company knew he was one of "The Original Kings of Comedy," celebrated in that 2000 stand-up concert film, but more recently he proved his mainstream viability by, as host, saving "Family Feud" and writing amusing but sincere best-selling advice books.

NBC's station group backed Harvey's show early, as well. Last year, Larry Wert, now of Tribune Co. but then executive vice president of station initiatives for the NBC stations, helped to convince Harvey that Chicago, with its talk show traditions, trained workers and studio space, was a better location than his home base of Atlanta.

Pleasing enough of daytime America to be considered a ratings success doesn't mean the show is perfect. It is not as tightly produced as Winfrey's was, for instance. Where Winfrey's guests almost always felt like the best available examples of their issue, vetted like presumptive FBI agents, Harvey's guests have been hit-and-miss.

And Harvey still needs work as an interviewer. He has personal charm but too often seems content to cruise on that. In a segment about older single women, he brought on three men as potential matches and told the women he would take charge of questioning them. But he proceeded to ask generic, bad-job-interview questions. Where do you see yourself in five years? What are your goals? Ho and hum.

The afternoon, though, is not a time of day that demands much.

By those relaxed standards, Harvey can just ham it up as he rolls his hips in a Zumba segment, turn on the high-wattage smile and then, in the guise of counseling a man and woman having difficulty blending their families, touch hearts by sharing a story about his kids and wife Marjorie's kids voting 4 to 3 against them getting married.

The former comedy king is looking like, at minimum, a daytime TV prince, and he's making it look easy.

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