NBC's Sunday night audience vanishes after Sunday Night Football concludes each January, so the network had modest expectations for the 18-49 demo performance of Steve Harvey's variety series Little Big Shots before it premiered in March.
"I was told by some folks at NBC, 'We want a 1.2 [rating], and we're going to be tipping champagne glasses,'" Harvey recalls. Instead, the numbers for his America's Got Talent/Kids Say the Darndest Things hybrid, in which talented children from around the world show off their skills and swap zingers with Harvey, more than doubled that during its first Sunday airing: a 2.8 rating, with 15 million total viewers tuning in. The surprise midseason hit ended up as the network's No. 2 show this season in both total viewers and 18-49 (behind only The Voice) and kept the bubbly flowing at the network. "They're drunk right now at NBC," says Harvey, laughing as he reels off the names of top brass at NBC and its parent company. "I know for a fact Paul Telegdy is drunk right now—and Bob Greenblatt, Steve Burke from Comcast and Ted Harbert."
Those men are in good company. When Harvey's syndicated game show Family Feud achieved a 2 household rating during its first season in 2010-11, it also had producer FremantleMedia North America (and Twentieth Television, which handles ad sales) popping corks. The celebration continued as Feud's ratings soared in subsequent seasons, topping out at a 7.5 in January. "They're way more drunk than the people at Little Big Shots," Harvey cracks. "Everybody's drunk because of Steve Harvey right now!"
Getting Hollywood buzz is one thing, but getting Hollywood buzzed is a feat few can pull off. Harvey is one of them. He is the host of four hit TV shows right now—Little Big Shots on NBC, Celebrity Family Feud on ABC (last summer's biggest new series in total viewers and adults 18-49), the syndicated Family Feud and his syndicated daytime talk show, Steve Harvey—with a fifth, an ABC business-reality series tentatively titled Dream Funder, ordered for midseason—in addition to a daily morning radio show. While networks are finding it tougher than ever to reliably draw audiences, Harvey is churning out one success after another, in a variety of genres and dayparts. As the broadcast upfront presentations kick off this week, Harvey's shows provide a model for networks and advertisers seeking a mass audience. "It has enabled me to cross all genres, all age groups," Harvey explains of his diverse programming. "I've got kids all the way up to grandmothers."
What's his secret? A combination of relatability and humor, says Rob Mills, svp, alternative series, specials and late-night programming at ABC. "Especially now as the TV landscape gets more and more fractionalized, to have a big broadcast talent like that is just incredibly rare," says Mills. Telegdy, NBC Entertainment's president of alternative and late-night programming, compares Harvey's appeal to that of Jimmy Fallon: "They've got reach, they're relevant and people are happy to see them. I defy you to not start smiling when you see Steve Harvey."
Especially if you're an advertiser. "At a time when the political climate is so fractious, you get the sense that he genuinely likes interacting with people," says Jill Isherwood, vp, associate director of broadcast research at GSD&M. "So knowing that you're going to be in an environment where people are going to be relaxed and enjoying that, and feel comfortable having their kids in the room, it's a great platform for advertising. And those numbers just make it even more appealing."
Maureen Bosetti, chief investment officer at Initiative, agrees. "He's funny, but he can also be serious," she points out. "A lot of it comes down to his point of view, his personality and the fact that he can appeal to many different segments in the audience, which is critical. You have to have that likability factor in order to generate large audiences these days, and he's doing that."
Even one of the biggest TV gaffes in recent memory didn't put a damper on Harvey's appeal. Last December, Harvey infamously announced the wrong winner when he was emcee of the Miss Universe pageant—not only a major embarrassment for Harvey and all involved, but a goof that generated a lot of hate via social media, even death threats. But Harvey would end up turning the controversy to his favor, earning record ratings in January for both his talk show (where he sat down with both the winner of the pageant and the woman he accidentally crowned) and Family Feud. He also spoofed the incident in a clever Super Bowl spot for T-Mobile. "He owned it. He showed people that you can make mistakes, but you've got to be accountable for it," says Bosetti. "Poking fun at himself helped because he didn't take himself too seriously."
Harvey's busy schedule doesn't leave much time for that. He shuttles between Atlanta (his home, where his business offices and radio studio are located, and where he shoots Family Feud), Chicago (where he tapes his talk show) and Los Angeles (where he shoots Little Big Shots and Celebrity Family Feud, and where Dream Funder will be based). He does his four-hour radio show 272 days a year from wherever he happens to be at the moment.
All that juggling "has caused me to focus a great deal. I pay attention to every minute of the day," says Harvey, whose commitments will prevent him from attending NBCU's upfront presentation today (May 16) and ABC's tomorrow. More importantly, he doesn't waste a moment. As Harvey walks Adweek around his Atlanta offices and radio studio one day last month, he attends to business matters nonstop before eventually hopping a flight to Chicago later in the day.
Given his schedule, perhaps it's no surprise that Harvey initially said no to hosting Little Big Shots. Mike Darnell, president, Warner Bros. unscripted and alternative television, saw prime-time potential in Ellen DeGeneres' interviews with talented kids on her talk show, which often go viral. When DeGeneres signed on as executive producer of the series but couldn't commit the time to hosting, Darnell says Harvey was his only other choice. "The kid has to feel comfortable with you, almost like you're a second father," says Darnell. "Steve's got that. He knows how to give you a sense that he is joking with them, but not at them."
Eventually, Harvey came around and says he knew early on that the show was going to be a hit. (So did NBC. "When we got a cut, we knew exactly what he had," says Telegdy.) "The interviews made it come to life," says Harvey, who worked to get the kids comfortable on camera. "I get them to talk about stuff they will have an answer for. After that, the magic comes from the kid, and it's just sitting there listening. You've got to be vulnerable when you're talking to kids. There's nothing worse than some adult standing up there just talking down to some kid. You can't work that way."
Little Big Shots gave NBC an unexpected midseason lift, helping the network go from fourth place in 18-49 on a typical Sunday last spring to winning several Sundays in the demo a year later. "Now we've got something that can credibly open a night with over 10 million viewers, that feels like a really solid platform for a great, compatible show next season," says Telegdy. The NBCU sales team, meanwhile, is ramping up brand integrations in Season 2.
Harvey has been a television staple for two decades. After initial success as a stand-up comic, the sitcom The Steve Harvey Show debuted on the WB in 1996 and ran for six seasons. In 2010, when Fremantle was searching for a new Family Feud host who was funny and who resonated with women, Harvey seemed the perfect choice, says Jennifer Mullin, co-CEO of the production company, pointing to Harvey's best-selling book from 2009, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (which inspired the 2012 movie, Think Like a Man). Still, Harvey took some winning over. "I never in my life saw myself as a game show host," says Harvey. "I don't want to be a traffic cop." He would end up pushing for a format change that allowed more funny interactions with the guests, especially in response to some of their sillier answers. "I said, 'You can make this show about a survey or you can make the show funny. If you let me make it funny, I'm your man,'" he recalls.
Mullin was all in. "He got that he needed to be an active participant and to say what the audience is thinking, and of course his reactions to what the family members say are priceless," she says.
Two years later, he expanded his daytime footprint with his talk show, which is still plugging along even as a host of boldface names (Katie Couric, Meredith Vieira, Queen Latifah) have come and gone. Harvey attributes his endurance to being one of the only men in the daypart, and the rare daytime personality who isn't afraid to speak his mind. "If you cook something on the show and I don't like it, I'm going to tell you," he says. "I don't understand how you could watch any of these morning shows and everything everybody cooks is absolutely delicious. Are you kidding me, man?"
Last summer, Harvey took his act back to prime time with Celebrity Family Feud, which became the second-most-watched show of the summer, behind America's Got Talent. When Season 2 premieres on June 26, it will anchor a new, three-hour game show block that also will feature $100,000 Pyramid, hosted by Michael Strahan, and Match Game, hosted by Alec Baldwin, and which ABC has dubbed "Fun & Games." Says Mills: "Steve was the cornerstone of that. That's what we're trying to do here, brand this night, and it's all because of Steve." (Mills compares it to ABC's lineup of Shonda Rhimes series on Thursday.)
The one-two punch of Celebrity Family Feud and Little Big Shots has had a positive ratings impact on his other shows and led ABC to green-light yet another Harvey project: Dream Funder, executive produced by Mark Burnett. Harvey was bowled over by the prolific producer when he was a guest on his talk show in 2014. ("Who makes The Bible and spends all the money telling the whole story? That's pretty incredible," Harvey says of Burnett's 2013 History miniseries.) Harvey suggested to Burnett that they work together someday. A year later, Burnett pitched Harvey a twist on his business-competition show, ABC's Shark Tank, in which all the entrepreneur contestants would walk away winners. "I said yeah—but I didn't think it would happen so quickly," Harvey admits.
Harvey hopes this impressive streak of TV hits will finally stop him from getting marginalized as an entertainer who only appeals to minority audiences. "Television has a funny way of putting everything in boxes, so it fits. You've got to stop putting people in the 'African-American' box and the 'Latino' box and the 'white' box, and then you get your advertising dollars based on that," says Harvey, who points out that his WB sitcom drew ratings similar to those of other shows on the network like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, yet got fewer ad dollars because it was deemed a "black" show. "Put me in a general-market platform and I'll perform in general-market platforms," he says. "Don't put me in the 'black' box because I'm going to bust out of it. I have fans from all walks of life."
Those fans may soon be seeing a bit less of him, however. Dream Funder will make five TV series and a radio show on Harvey's plate—one commitment too many, even for such a tireless talent. "I do love all of these gigs, but something is going to have to go for sure," he says. "I've only got five fingers, and there's five holes in the dam right now." Harvey says he and his wife Marjorie—and not his agents at William Morris Endeavor—will decide which project he'll give up. "At the end of the day, that little lady with the green eyes controls everything. [WME co-CEO] Ari Emanuel might be the most powerful man in Hollywood, but he don't get a vote at our house!"
One thing seems certain: It won't be the radio show, as it is closest to the real him, as he puts it, and is one of his favorite things to do. With most of his TV work, he explains, "I'm not there to make statements, but I can make statements on the radio show, and I'm talking to 8-to-9 million people."
The daytime talk show could be the most likely candidate for an early finish. Harvey refers to his other series as a "great gig" and "so doggone good," but can't muster the same passion for the talker. "To be honest, I've yet to find my niche on daytime TV," he admits. "I haven't found the way I really want to do the show, and I'm still searching for that." He seems more certain about the next phase of his career: "I want to become one of the premier motivational speakers in the world. I want to share with people in a comical way—but in a very real way—how to become successful. It's hard, but it's very doable if you break it down simply."
That's likely still a few years away. For now, Harvey wants to bask in his TV success—a pipe dream when he was just starting out, when he spent three years living out of his car. "The one thing I'd hoped I'd become in television was relevant. Now I'm relevant on daytime, prime time—somewhere, somebody has got their eyes on this little boy out of Welch, W. Va.," he says. "I've proven what I tried to get everybody to see: You can't put me in a box. Funny is funny, and if you let me do that, I've got something for everybody."
This story first appeared in the May 16, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.