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Nina Metz, McClatchy Newspapers, Published January 21 2012

Rosie’s new talk show set is a head-scratcher

CHICAGO – When Rosie O’Donnell stepped before the camera Tuesday to tape the first new episode of her talk show since the holiday hiatus, it was clear that changes are afoot. “I’m actually more nervous than I was at the premiere,” she said before announcing: “We’ve changed the whole thing.”

Gone is the Oprah-esque stage, with its warm, milky hues and expansive square footage, replaced with a set that is noticeably smaller and brighter. Even the studio audience has been reduced to roughly a fifth of its original size.

Despite a strong debut in October, when it pulled in 500,000 viewers to Oprah Winfrey’s ratings-challenged OWN cable network, “The Rosie Show” (which tapes in Chicago from Winfrey’s former studio at Harpo) failed to retain those numbers in ensuing months. No doubt O’Donnell understood it was time to shake things up.

“As a comic, I was like, I needed something smaller,” she told the audience Tuesday. “The old set was more like Caesars Palace, and I needed, like, Vinnie’s Yuk Yuk Hut.”

While the show has undergone subtle tweaks since its premiere – eliminating the mic stand and the Johnny Carson-esque curtain during her monologues; the gradual elimination of the game show portion; switching out the blue interview chairs for different-but-really-similar blue interview chairs – the changes have been nothing on this scale. Rarely are massive entertainment ventures able turn on a dime quite like this, although apparently no one told O’Donnell.

The new set, with its retina-searing yellow walls, purple credenzas and orange seating area, has been noticeably de-glamorized. It isn’t quite the improvement one assumes O’Donnell was going for, looking for all the world like a sitcom version of an 11-year-old’s bedroom. Butterfly decals dot the walls. A bright red high heel shoe dots the “I” on a blocky new “Rosie” logo. The smaller stage (and an audience of just 72) means there’s no room for the band anymore, although O’Donnell assured the audience that band leader Katreese Barnes was squirreled away somewhere at Harpo, doing something.

The smaller, less formal space has real potential, allowing for a looser, less-structured format. O’Donnell’s off-the-cuff persona is her strongest asset on camera, and she clearly has no qualms chucking ideas that don’t pan out. The old set-up probably wasn’t distinctive or personal enough to work long-term, and her chatty, we’re-all-friends-here approach will likely benefit from a setting that’s not so grand.

But the first order of business would be to entirely rethink the new set. Random props and accessories that don’t register on camera are scattered all over the place. O’Donnell has joked about the her high-rent digs and Harpo-influenced wardrobe, but nothing about this new set design _ which looks cheap and generic _ seems to have anything to do with O’Donnell herself.

Even the revamped intro, a ripoff the hip-hop-inflected opening credits for “In Living Color,” circa 1990 – feels ill-conceived and dated.

To be fair, the changes are likely a work in progress. Judging by the adjustments made so far, everything is in flux until O’Donnell and her team can land on something that reliably draws a sizable TV audience – or the show gets canceled, whichever comes first.

Neither O’Donnell nor reps for the show were made available to comment Wednesday.

Interestingly, O’Donnell says the changes are not the result of focus groups or producer hand-wringing. She told the audience Tuesday she was inspired to switch things around after her guest appearance last week on Bravo’s“Watch What Happens Live,” the freewheeling late-night cable talk show that is so low-budget, the set looks like a closet: “It’s maybe 8 feet by 10 feet, and there are nine audience members,” O’Donnell said. “And I thought that that would for work a little better, you know?” She is hoping to generate a similar intimacy and sense of unpredictability, on her own terms.