How Wendy Williams’ Successor Was Chosen

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Sherri Shepherd was only supposed to fill in for a few days.

It was fall 2021, and Wendy Williams, the host of her own eponymous talk show, had not been in her famous purple chair for weeks. According to multiple sources, she was in and out of hospitals, as medical professionals tried to figure out what, exactly, was causing symptoms like nonlinear speech, memory loss and even hallucinations. Meanwhile, the producers of her 10 a.m. TV show, which was entering its 13th season, had delayed as long as they could, and now they were relying on a string of guest hosts. Shepherd was tapped to fill-in on week three, though she’d be brought back for several more.

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“She blew us away,” says Debmar-Mercury’s executive VP programming Alexandra Jewett. “We’re always looking to see who’s out there and what they can bring to the table, and it was apparent from day one that Sherri had something special.” The ratings reflected it, too, and, by early 2022, when it was becoming increasingly clear that Williams wouldn’t be returning, Shepherd was atop a short list of possible replacements. The former View co-host, who’s also an actress and comedian, was joined there by other frequent fill-ins like Leah Remini and Michelle Visage.

In the end, Debmar-Mercury co-presidents Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein believed that Shepherd, who they’d held talks with about a show years before, would be the best fit. “We had the time period and we had the format, so the : Who’s the person who can best do it in his or her own style?” says Bernstein. “And we thought that Sherry did such a great job doing [the Wendy format] that, with tweaking, we’re going to make it the Sherry Shepherd show, but at 30,000 feet, in the marketplace, it’s going to fill that niche about gossip and entertainment and celebrities and what’s going on in the world without being political at all.”

Marcus agrees, noting that what was offered by some of the other guest hosts, from Remini to comic/actor Michael Rapaport, was “so good,” but ultimately a different show. “And to try to get the audience that was watching [The Wendy Williams Show] to keep watching, we thought it should be Sherri,” he says. “It was just clear she was much more of a fit for what The Wendy Williams Show was, and you could see that in the ratings when she was on.”

The stations were ultimately pleased with the choice. After all, Shepherd is already in the Fox station ecosystem as a co-host of Dish Nation, which she’ll continue to do. Frank Cicha, executive vp programming for the Fox TV stations, is busy touting the “cross-promotional opportunities,” while Lew Leone, the GM of Fox’s New York stations, where Williams was particularly dominant, is excited to have another New York-based show. Plus, he says, “Sherri’s fun and she’s positive, and she’s got the gravitas to carry her own show.”

Viewers shouldn’t expect Sherri, as the forthcoming show will be titled, to be the exact same hour that she delivered as Williams’ fill-in, even if the vast majority of The Wendy Williams Show staff and crew is coming with her. When pressed on what will change, the executives involved all stressed that Shepherd herself brings a different energy and a different style. As several point out, Shepherd lacks her predecessor’s edge, which, notably, was part of Williams’ appeal and also what alienated guests and potential viewers. By contrast, Shepherd has vowed to provide a celebrity-friendly atmosphere, telling The Daily Mail recently, “I’m about joy.”

Bernstein is hopeful that that side to Shepherd will help lure new viewers. “We’d do research on Wendy over the years and [audience members] would say, ‘I can’t believe she’s so mean to people. I watch her every day and she’s so mean.’ And it was like, okay, wait, wait, wait, what was the second line? I watch her every day, so clearly there was something there, but Sherri doesn’t have that edge,” says Bernstein. “In many ways, she’s just like the audience in the sense that she’s a single mom whose kid is her priority one, two and three, and she also happens to be a really talented comedian who’s hosting a talk show and she’s great at it.”

Shepherd’s show will make its debut Sept. 12, and at least a few involved worry that the demise of Williams’ show could color her successor’s entrance. In recent months, Shepherd has been blamed for series of decisions outside of her control, including the removal of the Wendy YouTube channel and social channels. The latter irks Marcus, in particular. “Because we waited as long as we possibly could to decide about Wendy and, by then, we had no choice but to cancel The Wendy Williams Show and launch a new show,” he says. “And look, there’s no guarantee of success, but we saw enough of Sherri to think, ‘Wow, she can actually do this,’ and so we’re excited to try.”

How Wendy Williams’ Successor Was Chosen

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