09/14/2011 05:49 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2011

Anderson Cooper: He's the Most Likable Element of His New Show

The war for the Oprah Space Begins.

Yesterday the first shot was fired around the talk show world as Warner Brothers officially entered the battle to replace Oprah.

The queen of the talk entered the arena by launching her own heir apparent, Dr. Oz under her Harpo banner.

Katie Couric follows next year as will Ricki Lake, Bethany Frankel and I'm sure many more.

So the first kid on this new block turned out to be Anderson Cooper who, as bravely as he's waded into snake-infested flood waters, has stepped into the fierce competition of syndicated talk.

To set the mood, he was quickly welcomed by a snarky review on an industry blog. Before I watched the show on TiVo, I unfortunately read the TVNewser story with the headline that Maury Povich can now exhale:

An impressive get, no question, but Cooper went a bit overboard in the show's open. As he peddled his bike through New York City, he asked viewers where they were when they heard that (Amy) Winehouse had died.

Coming one day after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it was an offensive question, reeking of phony gravitas. Moreover, Winehouse's death, while tragic, hardly rose to the level of public consciousness as did the murder of John Lennon or suicide of Kurt Cobain.

Speaking of 9/11, Cooper did find a way to mention the anniversary in his closing. Reverence? Maybe, but a cynic might argue it was to give the impression to unsuspecting viewers that the show was live. It was not, and it won't be.

Geez, the show was much better than all that. TVNewser did say they thought the produced tape pieces (with Winehouse home movies) were the quality of 60-Minutes segments. I'm not sure what they've been watching Sunday nights; the pieces were each a couple of minutes long and provided strong texture to the show, but 60 Minutes? Really?

Anyway, I suspect a competitor influenced the snarky TVNewser item. Anderson is just so incredibly likable -- like a Matt Lauer with less experience. And he comes across as a really decent, caring guy which I hear he actually is.

That doesn't mean there isn't a lot to fix. I do not like the set. Even with the spectacular view of the New York skyline, they've somehow given it a corny old morning show feel. The awkward couch thing is in stark contrast to the hip bike open which is fresh and very "Anderson," although I do think he's got to wear a helmet peddling through the streets of New York where the sister-in-law of famed trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz was recently killed on her bike.

The "where were you when" did not make me cringe. Anderson did not ask others, but rather told his viewers of where he was -- on vacation somewhere in South America.

Any journalist knows what it feels like to be away from your newsroom, trying to relax, when a breaking story makes you stop to catch your breath. I think that's what he meant, but didn't say.

I wonder why he didn't also tap into what everyone else was talking about at the time: although the news was shattering, so many said it wasn't a surprise. He also chose to ignore the cheesiest angle even though it generated the biggest buzz here three weeks ago: the curse of Club 27, the age at which music superstars Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimmy Hendrix and Kurt Cobain died after years of their own drug and alcohol abuse.

Although the Winehouse family interview was heralded as a big "get," I suspect most viewers knew of Amy Winehouse from news reports of her addiction and death than ever listened to her music. Before the parents came out, Anderson needed to play one of her many mind-blowing music clips and tell his audience to stop for a moment and just listen to Amy Winehouse and her giant voice that is now silent.

I like this clip
in particular because you can see, right before she starts to sing, a flash of insecurity and fear in her eyes before she musters the courage to just go for it.

Back to those 60 Minutes segments and carving out a one-hour format. I love seeing celebrity home movies, especially of a superstar's naughty childhood, but nothing I saw can compete for time with the raw emotional impact of hearing and watching Amy Winehouse sing the roof off the house.

As the hour began to unfold, I suspected this was a much longer interview poorly edited. As the show returned from a commercial break to bumpers of family photos, we suddenly got to see a split screen capturing the Winehouse parents crying, or rather what looked like mid-sob. It appeared to be unmotivated, false and manipulated, which is too bad. The dad may be gauche and not very likable to begin with, but I don't doubt his heartbreak is very real.

As they dissolved out of one particularly poignant father/daughter photo, one question from Anderson did make me cringe: "Where does that bond come from?" Uh, he's her dad, he wiped her bottom, changed her diapers, held her in his arms, sang to her, and adored her. Suddenly, the interviewer sounded as dysfunctional as the Winehouses. Again, the awkward couch helped undermine any intimacy.

That nitpick aside, I liked Anderson's warm, welcoming, compassionate tone with the group, although way too many once you add in the stepmom, aunt and boyfriend. Again, Anderson's still the most likable one in the room, something not exactly achieved by his rumored nemesis at CNN, the pompous Piers Morgan. Anderson clearly has a broader and more flexible range of decibel.

Winehouse's boyfriend came across as a thug dressed in Sunday best. He needed tougher questions like, "People will suspect you were an enabler..." "When does partying and blowing off steam become an addiction... " What did you see? When did you know the line was crossed?"

We're in a Celebrity Rehab/Intervention world now.

Anderson did not need to interject his brother's suicide into the interview unless he did more than just mention it to show the Winehouse family he understood their pain.

Suicide has no connection to the Amy Winehouse story, other than a sudden, shocking death in a family. It is especially unique because, among those who are successful, it is usually the best kept secret.

Amy Winehouse's problems were not exactly hidden. Perhaps Anderson could have put his personal information in a context to advance the story: that her death triggered thoughts of what he and his family experienced -- that when someone so young and so important to you dies, you wrestle with trying to understand the private demons they suffered, what made them so self-destructive. There was a lot more to dig in with the Winehouse parents, a requirement of the daytime (Oprah) audience.

One other mutual experience Anderson and the Winehouses probably shared: the helplessness families know well when trying to seek answers when the troubled loved one is an adult who can legally resist any and all forms of treatment. Should that not be a cornerstone of their new Winehouse foundation, which reportedly received at least $50,000 from Anderson Cooper's new daytime show.

On that side note, will anyone else examine the co-inki-dinky of Warner's shelling out the pile of cash and the Winehouse family selecting Time-Warner's, er CNN's Piers Morgan as the other venue for an "exclusive?" Although Anderson's spokesperson denies the money was for the interview (don't they always?), isn't anyone there worrying about the perception and potential harm to Anderson's reputation? (Piers doesn't have to worry about that.)

The Amy Winehouse story turned out to be a good subject choice for Anderson's premiere, which came on the heels of the tenth anniversary of the greatest civilian tragedy America ever experienced. As one who'd spent a long weekend dissolved in the tears of 9/11 and hand-carried flowers to my humble Ladder 23 on Monday, I was more than ready to move on, but not quite ready to yuk it up. The selection of this show for Monday offered a smart transition and a solid, likable first show.

Nowhere To Go But Up?

So, given all it's potential and fixable elements, exactly where did Anderson's premiere rank amongst his competition? Here are the Nielsen ratings for the first 56 markets reporting overnight:

Dr OZ , which inherited the lion's share of Oprah's old time slots, soared in its season premier 38 percent over last year and ranked #1.

Dr. OZ (3.8)
The View (3.5)
Regis & Kelly (2.9)
Maury (2.8)
Ellen (2.7)
Dr. Phil (2.6)
The Talk (1.9)
Jerry Springer (1.8)
Rachael Ray (1.5)
The Doctors (1.6)
Nate Berkus Show (1.3)
Anderson Cooper (1.3)
Wendy Williams (1.2)

As word of mouth builds and more people learn where and when to find the new show, I genuinely hope Anderson succeeds. Syndication is not like the comparatively cushy world of cable news where bad ratings don't seem to matter. In the talk show world, hosts live and die by the numbers.

Anderson Cooper is one of the good guys and I hope he makes time in his overcrowded, dueling job schedules to become one of the great guys. Like Amy Winehouse's music, the art of a long form interview only looks effortless when conducted by a master, performed by someone who knows how to conquer the fear, reach very deep down inside and go for it.

This column was first posted on Shelley Ross' daily Xpress.