ABC 7 gets serious in auditioning hosts for 'fun' Oprah replacement
Plans for an ambitious new morning talk show — described as “live, local and fun” — kick into high gear this week with the start of on-camera auditions at ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7.
In the works since shortly after Oprah Winfrey announced she was ceasing production of her Chicago-based syndicated show and shifting attention to her OWN cable network, the new show on ABC 7’s drawing board has attracted interest far and wide, including inquiries from more than 500 would-be hosts and their agents.
Following months of interviews in Chicago and on both coasts with nearly 200 potential candidates, executive producer Marlaine Selip and supervising producer Cindy Patrasso have summoned about 20 of them for tryouts in a variety of combinations, according to sources familiar with the project. Among those under consideration are:
- Bonnie Bernstein, ESPN Radio host and former ESPN Chicago bureau chief, former ABC and CBS sports reporter.
- Roe Conn, afternoon personality on news/talk WLS-AM (890) and contributor to Fox Chicago News.
- Jeff Goldblatt, part-time reporter at NBC 5, former main news anchor at Fox Chicago News and former national correspondent for Fox News Channel.
- Brittney Payton, host of “Chicago’s Best ” on WGN and CLTV, and daughter of late Bears Hall of Famer Walter Payton.
- Bill Rancic, reality show star and first winner of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.”
- Stephen A. Smith, sports commentator and columnist, NBA insider for Fox Sports and ESPN.
- Rafer Weigel, sports anchor for HLN’s “Morning Express,” actor and son of late Chicago sports anchor Tim Weigel.
The producers are hoping to finalize their lineup of hosts and contributors by the end of February. No start date has been announced for the show, which will take over the 9 to 10am weekday time slot Oprah has dominated for more than 25 years. Her syndicated show will offer reruns until fall, but production of new episodes is expected to cease at the end of May.
The new show will originate in front of a studio audience at ABC 7 headquarters at 190 N. State. A three-minute demo tape produced last summer labeled it “Morning Rush,” but insiders said that’s considered only a working title.
Since they were hired in October, Selip and Patrasso, both veterans of NBC’s short-lived “In the Loop with iVillage,” have been refining their plans with the help of focus groups. No matter whom they choose as hosts, the show is expected to have a strong Chicago orientation and cover multiple topics each day. Their goal, by all accounts, is to make it "live, local and fun."
From the start of the project, ABC 7 officials have insisted that they’re not out to re-create or re-invent Oprah Winfrey. “I don’t think that’s possible,” Emily Barr, the station’s president and general manager, told Chicago News Cooperative’s Jim Kirk last week. “I think we would be foolish to even attempt it.”
Follow up: Several hours after this story was posted, Rafer Weigel wrote to say he has withdrawn from consideration. "I've decided not to pursue the WLS job and instead stay at HLN," he said.