EXECUTIVE SESSION WITH TODD YASUI

New Showrunner Has Big Plans For ‘Latifah’

Going into its second season, the Sony Pictures Television daytime talker has brought in latenight TV veteran Todd Yasui to help grow the ratings. He plans on loosening things up with more spontaneous, less produced segments while adding scripted comedy skits and more music performances, among other elements.

Queen Latifah has a lot going for it, most of all the host. Queen Latifah (Dana Owens) is a talented singer, actress and charismatic TV personality.

The Sony Picture Television talk show also has a solid major-market platform, the CBS Television Stations, where it is surrounded by other top programming. On KCBS Los Angeles, for instance, it leads into CBS Television Distribution’s No. 1 daytime talk show Dr. Phil.

Yet, the show struggled in its inaugural season, finishing tied with NBCUniversal’s Jerry Springer at No. 11 among talk shows with a 0.7 women 25-54 rating.

Undaunted, Sony is still determined to turn the show into a long-term franchise. To that end, it brought in a new showrunner, Todd Yasui, whose extensive background in latenight TV included a stint on NBC’s Tonight Show.

Yasui is confident he can boost the ratings and has some ideas on how to do it. One is to loosen things up, with more spontaneous segments and less of the highly produced, inspirational field pieces that were a key element of the show’s early episodes.

He plans to add more scripted comedy skits that he says were a highlight of the show’s first 175 episodes. And he plans to build on Queen Latifah’s rapport with fellow musicians by adding more musical performances and more interviews with musicians.
Yasui spoke with TVNewsCheck‘s Kevin Downey about the show’s first season and how he and his team are spending the summer improving the show.

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Queen Latifah’s ratings weren’t as great as many thought they would be in year one. What’s the problem?

All the biggest and best shows, if you look back at their ratings, didn’t come out of the gate and blow people away. These types of shows, whether it’s latenight or daytime, react differently to the marketplace than a primetime scripted show.

Every fall, there are a slew of new primetime shows to sample. You usually decide in the first episode if you’ll watch the rest of the season.

The thing about daytime and latenight talk shows is they tend to move at a glacial pace. Historically, if you look at Conan O’Brien, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey or Jimmy Fallon’s 12:35 a.m. show, the audience is fixated on what they are used to. All the shows are a slow build. We’re in a patience business.

When a new show comes on the air, it is human nature to compare it to another host or another show. Those people already have their show. So, it takes a while for viewers to find new ones.

Do you have any reason to think Queen Latifah’s ratings will go up?

One bright spot is that we saw a slow growth in the key demographics over the course of the season. Another bright spot is that there’s a core audience. The show didn’t lose viewers over the year, which is a good sign.

We see this as a marathon. We’re not feeling impatient about the ratings.

On June 4, you replaced Corin Nelson as Queen Latifah’s executive producer. Were you promoted to achieve a specific goal?

I joined the show [as co-executive producer] before the first season. My background is comedy and variety. I have a lot of latenight experience.

From the beginning, we were looking to mix up the team with people with different skill sets, not just people with backgrounds in daytime. One of the reasons they brought me and some other people in was to bring in a different sensibility.

You don’t see a lot of daytime shows doing comedy. The other shows, even Ellen, do comedic stuff. But they don’t really write comedy.

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The goal on Queen Latifah from the beginning was to bring in a few key people, like me and a couple of our writers, to bring in a looser, irreverent comedy.

We had 175 episodes, which basically means we wrote 175 pieces of comedy.

Did you make any changes to the show as the season went on?

There are always changes to first-year shows. You start out at 100 miles per hour. You try a bunch of stuff. But then you wonder if something was worth the time and the money.

You also have to find out what Dana’s sweet spot is. She’s a rapper, an actress and a musician. I don’t think it matters who you are or what your background is. As a host, you have to find out what works for you.

As we went along, we changed things. At first, we went very heavy on human interest stories and inspirational stories. People loved them. But they take so much work and they can be very expensive to produce. We scaled back those big events where we were traveling around the country.

The question no one can answer until we analyze the statistics of 175 episodes, is: For the amount of time and money that a segment costs, are you moving the needle?

This summer, one thing we’ll do is analyze those numbers.

Did you figure out which guests move the needle?

She has a soft spot for musicians and she can speak really well with them.

We had on some people who were not typical talk show guests but who are very entertaining. For instance, we had on guests from Swamp People. We had on people from Naked and Afraid and they were fascinating.

It’s like anything else, you see what works and you do more of that.

What does your gut tell you is working on the show?

The one thing we have really seen is that she is a funny comedic actress. She does characters extremely well. You don’t see a lot of that on daytime TV. You’ll see people be comedic, but not in a way that showcases them as an actor.

We’ve seen her speaking with musicians where she really gets information out of them. We will have more cool music and maybe spend more time getting to know the artists.

The celebrities come to new shows and they approach it with a lot of caution. But we already saw guests loosening up and getting wackier as the season went on. Now, they’re here to play, so we’ll have more fun segments with the guests.

Will you add latenight elements like a band or sidekick to Queen Latifah?

If I can bring anything to daytime from latenight, it’s a looseness and a casualness to this daypart.

In latenight comedy, you do comedy that doesn’t make sense or have a reason for being, like David Letterman putting a camera in Hello Deli or Conan O’Brien’s masturbating bear. If it’s funny, it’s funny.

In daytime, you need to have a reason you’re presenting it to viewers. They’re not sitting there just watching the show. They’re multitasking. So, you have to make comedy relevant to the audience, as opposed to just trying to make people laugh.

Now that you’re in charge of the show, what’s your vision for it?

One of my motivations is to take everything we learned in season one, which was a lot of the business side of running a show. You do everything on your best behavior. It’s an army of people putting on these shows.

I’ve probably worked on 15 startups in my life and they’re all the same. You have a huge group of people who never worked together before. You end up spending a huge amount of time figuring out a million little, different things like getting a clip from here to there with the proper approvals.

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We have now earned the right to loosen up. That’s something we are all looking forward to now that we learned how to put on a broadcast program. We are going to bring a lot more spontaneity to the show.

The best thing you can do on these shows is make your host completely comfortable in that chair. She’s going to play more now.

When you became the showrunner, it was also announced that Amy Coleman and Fernita Wynn joined the show as consulting producer and supervising producer, respectively. What do they bring to the show?

We have a saying around here that we want A-level people in every position on the show.

Amy has a very long resume. When you see Oprah on someone’s resume, you pay attention. And it wasn’t two years on Oprah; it was 16 years. She’s got that experience and she has been an EP too.

Fernita has a different background. She has a lot of celebrity booking experience. And she worked on Steve Harvey, which is a very successful show.

We don’t want 90 people who’ve all done the same types of shows. We look very closely at everyone we hire to see what experience they have and what different perspectives they’ll bring to the show.

How is Queen Latifah’s mood now that the first season is over?

I thought she’d be super tired after the first season. She has a full career doing other stuff. She does this show, she does music and she is a producer with a prolific production company.

The amount of work at first seems daunting. Every day it’s one new thing after another. But she quickly got into the groove. I haven’t seen anyone improve in one season as much as she has.

Dana knows what her strengths are and she knows what she needs to work on. We’ve all met people who are blinded by to their weaknesses. But she’s a straightforward New Jersey girl who’s very upfront when she doesn’t do something well. A lot of stars don’t want to hear that kind of thing, but she is very honest about it.

I expected her to want to take a break. But she’s already talking about the second season. She’s very excited about it.

Queen Latifah didn’t do a lot of promotion or station visits prior to the first season. Will she do that this summer?

She does as much as she can humanly do. There are just so many hours in a week. She has never said “no” to anything we asked her to do, unless it was not humanly possible to fit it into her schedule.

She is shooting an HBO movie this summer (Bessie). It’s the lead role. She has a production company, too, so there is a lot to do.

But she’s committed to the show. She’s in it for the long run.

CBS Television Stations is the launch group for Queen Latifah. Is that the right fit for the show?

We have to be aware of our neighborhood. Everyone is proud to be on a juggernaut like CBS daytime. We’re honored to be part of stations with Dr. Phil and The Talk. They’re definitely decent neighbors to have.

Will there be any time slot downgrades or station changes in season two?

I have not heard of any major changes. That’s a good sign.


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