In an effort to inspire viewers of the eponymous talk show that debuts next Monday, Jeff Probst is drawing some of his inspiration from Phil Donahue, the legendary talk show host who discovered that the studio audience can be an important contributor to a show. In his visit to the set during tapings in Los Angeles last month, TVNewsCheck’s Kevin Downey found that the set itself facilitates and encourages audience interaction.
Every conversation about daytime syndication eventually gets around to Oprah. She dominated the field for most of the 25 years her show was on the air and the newcomers all want her kind of success and to one degree another be like her.
But for the eponymous talk show from CBS Television Distribution that debuts next Monday (Sept. 10), Jeff Probst seems to be tapping an earlier force in daytime syndication: Phil Donahue, the roving studio inquisitor who reinvented the talk format during his nearly three-decade run.
Rather than parking himself on stage for an hour, Probst in tapings that began late July is mixing it up with the audience so he can hear what folks have to say about topics that have ranged from the humorous (like friends who share too much information) to the serious (like raising sexually active teenagers).
“We do shows about parenting where we don’t need experts because we have parents in the audience,” says Probst during a production hiatus.
The whole set is designed to encourage interaction with the audience. A raised platform flows out and around islands of seats, giving the casually dressed Probst free range and access to just anybody in those seats.
“It feels like a real conversation with real people,” says Aaron Meyerson, president of programming and development for the show’s syndicator, CBS Television Distribution.
The show is also influenced by Disney-ABC’s Live! where Kelly Ripa and her co-host (Michael Strahan permanently as of Monday) start each show by talking about what’s going on in their own lives. Probst, who was a guest host on that show nearly two dozen times, does the same.
After his opening remarks, Probst brings out his first guests – usually regular folks but sometimes celebrities.
Sometimes, he heads over to a big screen that he uses like a blackboard. He may point to topics that were discussed on previous episodes. Or, in another element of audience interaction, he’ll ask audience members to vote in the “court of public opinion” by pressing a button on a small remote control that’s attached to each seat. The results pop up on the monitor.
“I want the show to be structured like a radio show,” says Probst. “I’d rather not have Monday’s show end and then be done with it. I might bring it up again on Wednesday. We might be discussing a topic and I’ll say, ‘Go to the board’ to see what a guest said on Monday.”
In most episodes, there are also taped segments in which Probst doesn’t appear.
“We’re trying to tell a story,” he says. “When we hired our field producers, I was looking for filmmakers. The only instruction they have is, ‘Get the story and stay out of the way.’”
When Probst settles on stage, he sits on a beige chair. His guests sit on an beige couch to his side. The backdrop is huge floor-to-ceiling windows that look out to a faux courtyard filled with trees. On the sides of the windows hang shiny gold and silver drapes; in between are light-colored rock walls.
The set designer is Jeff Hall, who worked on Sony Pictures Television’s Nate Berkus, which recently won a Daytime Emmy for set design.
“We worked very closely with him,” says executive producer Amy Coleman, who was a producer on Oprah for 16 years. “We wanted the room to feel like the home of a really cool friend who you love to visit.”
Probst aims to inspire his audience — in the studio and at home.
Unfailingly upbeat, Probst believes life is an adventure. A recent morning walk with his two stepkids, he says, turned into a daylong trip that ended with the three of them returning exhausted as the sun set.
“There won’t be a lot of ‘life sucks’ on the show,” he says. “The show is about, ‘This is your life. What do you want to do with it?’”