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Rosie O'Donnell can still be a force, but a talk comeback is not without challenges

March 22, 2010 |  7:24 am

Will Rosie O'Donnell play Jay Leno to Ellen DeGeneres' Conan O'Brien?

That analogy may be a little over the top, but not by too much. Just when DeGeneres was positioning herself as the heir apparent to Oprah Winfrey's audience, out of nowhere comes O'Donnell looking to return to daytime talk when Winfrey hits the road in September 2011. 

ROSIE O'Donnell is certainly a big name who had a huge following with her first talk show, which ran from 1996 to 2002. However, toward the end of the run of that show and through her controversial stint on ABC's "The View," O'Donnell became something of a lightning rod. Her outspoken personality and political stances on "The View" overwhelmed the image she'd cultivated as "the queen of nice" on her old talk show.

The folks backing O'Donnell -- former Warner Bros. syndication executives Dick Robertson and Scott Carlin -- are betting that she can reclaim her old audience. Both Robertson and Carlin helped launch her first show, which was produced by Warner Bros.' Telepictures Productions. When Winfrey leaves, television stations across the country -- including the ABC-owned stations in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago -- will have big holes to fill.

O'Donnell is not planning a political show, says a person familiar with her plans. Instead she wants to do a show that can cover issues and entertainment much the way Winfrey does. According to someone close to O'Donnell, her first choice for a producer is Rory Kennedy, the documentary filmmaker who is the daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy. However, no executive producer has been named yet. Just the idea that Kennedy is being considered certainly signals that soft talk may not be on O'Donnell's agenda.

Furthermore, even if O'Donnell is planning on lightening her personality, that does not guarantee that the middle America viewers who made her a hit the first time around will come back. 

On the business side, there is still a lot of bad blood at ABC over how she left "The View," and while this new show will be syndicated, Robertson and Carlin are likely going to need the ABC-owned stations if they are to have a chance at succeeding. It is not a given that the ABC-owned stations are going to be looking for another talk show to replace Winfrey. Some of the stations may opt for more local news because they can make more money there.

With her quick wit, comedic timing and proven track record, O'Donnell certainly will make the next year interesting. DeGeneres too had to do a little image rehab after her ABC sitcom ended, but she was never as polarizing as O'Donnell has become.

People close to O'Donnell say it'd be foolish to bet against her. And it's true that she is a smart performer who has succeeded in the past. She could recapture her old magic. However, it would also be foolish to deny that she will need to resell herself to the public if in fact she wants to do a broad daytime talk show.

One thing O'Donnell's reentry into talk will do is make it all the harder for any newcomers to get off the ground.

As for the whole Leno-O'Brien comparison, it's true that analogy would work better if it was Winfrey deciding not to retire after all. But it is worth noting that O'Donnell was very critical of Leno's decision to come back to late-night television. Guess it is a case of do as I say, not as I do.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Rosie O'Donnell. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press