"Steve Harvey" is not everyone's cup of afternoon tea.
Devotees of, say, "The Colbert Report" will find "Harvey's" right-down-the-middle humor uninspiring. Funny newspaper headlines and jokes about how men behave versus how women behave — where have we seen that before?
"Dr. Phil" fans might consider the veteran stand-up comic's version of common sense to be delivered with too soft a touch. Come on, Steve, don't just dole out love and life advice in the hours between lunch and dinner. Shame people! Make them cry!
And some women in the target audience could be turned off by Harvey's residual horndog tendencies, as when he recently told three single women over 40 to let themselves be pursued by a man because "you are everything he's got to have. All these legs, these dresses, this hair. Breasts. Men got to have all of this."
But whatever the individual pieces of "Steve Harvey" are doing, the package as a whole is adding up to remarkable success for the first-year syndicated talk show, the new tenant classing up Jerry Springer's old studio in Chicago's NBC Tower.
Its ratings power is validating the decision to portray Harvey as a recognizable and fully mainstream figure: stern-but-loving father, traditionally masculine husband, a man who will tell the women watching what really goes on in the male brain, even when the thinking gets explicitly anatomical.
The show, cannily, is just loose enough to let Harvey's mind — trained in raucous comedy theaters — threaten to undermine its traditional elements, but tight enough that it never fails to be fully of its genre, the daytime syndicated talk show.
And however often you can see Harvey delivering a less-than-compelling question or fighting back the stand-up's urge to utter some crude innuendo, the show has a rare quality for daytime or, indeed, any TV: a grounding in emotion and, even, altruism.
Just last week, Harvey showcased his charity effort, with Disney and Essence magazine, to help kids achieve their dreams. He devoted a long, touching segment to a San Francisco group that gives troubled teens a second chance to prove themselves, in a cafe workplace setting.
"What I always wanted this show to do," Harvey said on the air, "was just point out how people change people's lives."
Again, just to make the contrast crystal clear, this is the show that is in Jerry Springer's old studio.
The blend of good deeds and old ideas is working. The show is battling it out for top new syndicated talker of the year with former "Today" anchor Katie Couric's "Katie," while new shows fronted by talk veteran Ricki Lake and "Survivor" host Jeff Probst have faltered.
"Harvey" outperforms its lead-in (the show airing before it), it builds audience throughout the hour, it's been building audience during the year, and, because it doesn't rely on celebrities to spike ratings, the audience has tended to be consistent, David Goldberg, CEO of Endemol North America, the reality TV producer for which "Harvey" is the first foray into daytime talk, said in an interview.
It's proven a good match, too, said Goldberg, with Ellen DeGeneres' talk show, which follows it in many markets, including Chicago. Harvey is a stand-up who dances on his show and talks to real people. DeGeneres is a stand-up who dances and talks to celebrities.
For the calendar year, "Harvey" is averaging about 2.1 million viewers, an improvement from its average of 1.9 million for the entire TV season. And in the key demographics, the show will tell you, it is the top new daytime show with women 18-49, a distinction it also claims among women 25-54 in 2013.
The hairsplitting tells you, of course, that you can also find categories in which "Katie" leads (total viewers, women 25 to 54 for the entire season), but the bigger story is these are the two most successful new talk shows since "Dr. Oz's" 2009 debut. And while "Katie" had publicity and expectations in its favor, "Harvey" has been able to almost sneak up on people.
We needn't worry about another Michigan Avenue street closure just yet, but certainly "Harvey" is basking in the success and this week is taking a sort of victory lap as it enters its first May sweep ratings period. An upcoming show featuring, as a guest, Dr. Phil, the ratings leader in daytime talk, taped Tuesday.
And Friday's guest ("Harvey" airs at 2 p.m. weekdays on WMAQ-Ch. 5) is no less a personage than Oprah Winfrey.
"This feels like the ultimate role reversal," Winfrey tells Harvey, in an advance clip. "Now you're here in Chicago, on your own stage, with your own show," she adds, and the two do a sort of chair-bound, raise-the-roof dance.