Daytime Talk Shows

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Daytime Talk Shows

The daytime television talk show is a uniquely modern phenomenon, but one with roots stretching back to the beginning of broadcasting. Daytime talk programs are popular with audiences for their democratic, unpredictable nature, with producers for their low cost, and with stations for their high ratings. They have been called everything from the voice of the common people to a harbinger of the end of civilization. Successful hosts become stars in their own right, while guests play out the national drama in a steady stream of confession, confrontation, and self-promotion.

Daytime talk shows can be classified into two basic formats. Celebrity-oriented talkers have much in common with their nighttime counterparts. The host performs an opening monologue or number, and a series of celebrity guests promote their latest films, TV shows, books, or other product. The host's personality dominates the interaction. These shows have their roots in both talk programs and comedy-variety series. The basic formula was designed by NBC's Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, creator of both Today and The Tonight Show. Musical guests and comic monologues are frequently featured along with discussion. Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, and Rosie O'Donnell have all hosted this type of show.

The more common and successful category of talk shows is the issue-oriented talker. Hosts lead the discussion, but the guests' tales of personal tragedy, triumph, and nonconformity are at the center. Phil Donahue was the first, beginning in 1979, to achieve national prominence with this style of talk show. Oprah Winfrey was transformed from local Chicago television personality to national media magnate largely on the strength of her talk program. In the 1990s, these shows grew to depend more and more on confession and confrontation. The trend has reached its apparent apotheosis with The Jerry Springer Show, on which conflicts between guests frequently turn physical, with fistfights erupting on stage.

With the tremendous success in the 1980s of Donahue, hosted by Phil Donahue (most daytime talk programs are named for the host or hosts) and The Oprah Winfrey Show, the form has proliferated. Other popular and influential hosts of the 1980s and 1990s include Maury Povich, Jenny Jones, Sally Jesse Raphael, former United States Marine Montel Williams, journalist Geraldo Rivera, actress Ricki Lake, and Jerry Springer, who had previously been Mayor of Cincinnati. On the celebrity-variety side, actress-comedienne Rosie O'Donnell and the duo of Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford have consistently drawn large audiences.

The list of those who tried and failed at the daytime talk format includes a wide assortment of rising, falling, and never-really-were stars. Among those who flopped with issue-oriented talk shows were former Beverly Hills, 90210 actress Gabrielle Carteris, actor Danny Bonaduce of The Partridge Family, ex-Cosby Show kid Tempestt Bledsoe, Mark Walberg, Rolanda Watts, Gordon Elliott, Oprah's pal Gayle King, Charles Perez, pop group Wilson Phillips' Carnie Wilson, retired Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, and the teams of gay actor Jim J. Bullock and former televangelist Tammy Faye Baker Messner and ex-spouses George Hamilton and Alana Stewart. Others have tried the celebrity-variety approach of Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin; singer-actress Vicki Lawrence and Night Court's Marsha Warfield both failed to find enough of an audience to last for long.

Issue talk shows like Sally Jesse Raphael and The Jerry Springer Show rely on "ordinary" people who are, in some way, extraordinary (or at least deviant.) Though celebrities do occasionally appear, the great majority of guests are drawn from the general population. They are not celebrities as traditionally defined. Though the talk show provides a flash of fleeting notoriety, they have no connection with established media, political, or social elites. They become briefly famous for the contradictory qualities of ordinariness and difference. Show employees called "bookers" work the telephones and read the great volume of viewer mail in search of the next hot topic, the next great guest. Those chosen tend to either lead non-traditional life-styles—such as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, prostitutes, transvestites, and people with highly unorthodox political or religious views—or have something to confess to a close confederate, usually adultery or some other sexual transgression. If the two can be combined, e.g., confessing a lesbian affair, which The Jerry Springer Show has featured, then so much the better. The common people gain a voice, but only if they use it to confess their sins.

Like all talk shows, daytime talkers rely on the element of unpredictability. There is a sense that virtually anything can happen. Few shows are broadcast live, they are taped in a studio with a "cast" of nonprofessional, unrehearsed audience members. The emotional reaction of the audience to the guest's revelations becomes an integral part of the show. The trend in the late 1990s was deliberately to promote the unexpected. The shows trade heavily on the reactions of individuals who have just been informed, on national television, that a friend/lover/relative has been keeping a secret from them. Their shock, outrage, and devastation becomes mass entertainment. The host becomes the ringmaster (a term Springer freely applies to himself) in an electronic circus of pain and humiliation.

Sometimes the shock has implications well beyond the episode's taping. In March of 1996, The Jenny Jones Show invited Jonathan Schmitz onto a program about secret admirers, where someone would be confessing to a crush on him. Though he was told that his admirer could be either male or female, the single, heterosexual Schmitz assumed he would be meeting a woman. During the taping, a male acquaintance, Scott Amedure, who was gay, confessed that he was Schmitz's admirer. Schmitz felt humiliated and betrayed by the show, and later, enraged by the incident, he went to Amedure's home with a gun and shot him to death. Schmitz was convicted of murder, but was granted a new trial in 1998. In a 1999 civil suit, the Jenny Jones Show was found negligent in Amedure's death and the victim's family was awarded $25 million. The ruling forced many talk shows to consider how far they might go with future on-air confrontations.

Talk, as the content of a broadcasting media, is nothing new. The world's first commercial radio broadcast, by KDKA Pittsburgh on November 2, 1920, featured an announcer giving the results of the Presidential election. Early visions of the future of radio and TV pictured the new media as instruments of democracy which could foster participation in public debate. Broadcasters were, and still are, licensed to operate in "the public interest, convenience and necessity," in the words of the communications Act of 1934. Opposing views on controversial contemporary issues could be aired, giving listeners the opportunity to weigh the evidence and make informed choices. Radio talk shows went out over the airwaves as early as 1929, though debate-oriented programs took nearly another decade to come to prominence. Commercial network television broadcasts were underway by the fall of 1946, and talk, like many other radio genres, found a place on the new medium.

Television talk shows of all types owe much to the amateur variety series of the 1940s and 1950s. Popular CBS radio personality Arthur Godfrey hosted Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts on TV in prime time from 1948 to 1958. The Original Amateur Hour, hosted by Ted Mack, ran from 1948 to 1960 (at various times appearing on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Dumont.) These amateur showcases were genuinely democratic; they offered an opportunity for ordinary people to participate in the new public forums. Talent alone gave these guests a brief taste of the kind of recognition usually reserved for celebrities. Audiences saw themselves in these hopeful amateurs looking for their big break. Winners were a source of inspiration; losers provided a laugh. Godfrey added another element to this mix: unconventionality. He was unashamedly emotional and unafraid to push the envelope of acceptable (for the era) host behavior. Breaking the rules became part of his persona, and that persona made him a star. Talk show hosts from Jack Paar to David Letterman to Jerry Springer would put Godfrey's lesson to productive use.

One of the earliest daytime talkers was Art Linkletter's House Party. Many of the elements of the successful, modern talk show were in place: Linkletter was a genial host who interacted with a live audience. They participated in the program by confessing their minor transgressions and foibles. Linkletter responded with calm platitudes, copies of his book (The Confessions of a Happy Man), and pitches for Geritol and Sominex. No matter what the trouble, Linkletter could soothe his audience members' guilt with reassurances that they were after all perfectly normal, and that "people are funny" (an early title for the series.) Sin (albeit venial) was his subject, but salvation was his game. Each show concluded with his "Kids Say the Darnedest Things" segment, wherein Linkletter milked laughs from children's responses to questions about grown-up subjects. This bit proved both endearing and enduring; in 1998 it was revived in prime time by CBS as a vehicle for another genial comedian, Bill Cosby.

Linkletter gave the modern talk show confession, but Joe Pyne gave it anger. The Joe Pyne Show, syndicated from 1965 to 1967, offered viewers a host as controversial as his guests. Twenty years before belligerent nighttime host Morton Downey, Jr., Pyne smoked on the set and berated his guests and audience. The show was produced at Los Angeles' KTTV. At the height of the Watts riots of 1965, Pyne featured a militant black leader; both men revealed, on the air, that they were armed with pistols. Other guests included the leader of the American Nazi Party and Lee Harvey Oswald's mother. Pyne, like Downey, lasted only a short time but made a major impression.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the celebrity-variety talk show flourished. This was the era of Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and Dinah Shore. Douglas was a former big-band vocalist who occasionally sang on his show. The Mike Douglas Show ran in syndication from 1961 to 1982. His variation on the daytime talk formula was to have a different celebrity co-host from Monday to Friday each week. For one memorable week in the early 1970s he was joined by rock superstars John Lennon and Yoko Ono. His guests ran the gamut from child actor Mason Reese to pioneering heavy metal rock band KISS. In 1980 his production company replaced him with singer-actor John Davidson, in an unsuccessful attempt to appeal to a more youthful audience. Douglas stayed on the air for two more years, then faded from public view. His impact on daytime talk shows was underappreciated by many until 1996, when The Rosie O'Donnell Show premiered to immediate acclaim and ratings success. Multiple-Emmy winner O'Donnell frequently cited both Douglas and Merv Griffin as major inspirations.

The modern issue-oriented daytime talk show began with Donahue. From the beginning, Phil Donahue knew he was doing something different, neither purely journalism nor purely entertainment. It was not news, but it was always new. The issues were real, the guests were real, but the whole package was ultimately as constructed a piece of entertainment as any of its predecessors. By making television spectacle out of giving voice to the voiceless, Donahue found an audience, thus meeting commercial broadcasting's ultimate imperative: bringing viewers to the set. Though the market has since become saturated with the confessional show, Phil Donahue's concept was as radical as it was engaging. For the first time, the marginalized and the invisible were given a forum, and mainstream America was fascinated.

A true heir to Donahue's throne did not appear until 1986, with the premiere of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey was a Chicago TV personality who burst onto the national scene with her Academy Award-nominated performance in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985). She took Donahue's participatory approach and added her own sensibility. Winfrey, an African-American and sexual abuse survivor, worked her way out of poverty onto the national stage. When her guests poured out their stories, she understood their pain. Unlike many who followed, Winfrey tried to uplift viewers rather than offer them a wallow in the gutter. She started "Oprah's Book Club" to encourage viewers to read contemporary works she believed important. She sought to avoid the confrontations so popular on later series. After one guest surprised his wife on the air with the news that he was still involved with his mistress, and had, in fact, impregnated her, Winfrey vowed such an episode would never occur again. In 1998, in response to the popularity of The Jerry Springer Show, Oprah Winfrey introduced a segment called "Change Your Life Television," featuring life-affirming advice from noted self-help authors. The Oprah Winfrey Show has received numerous accolades, including Peabody Awards and Daytime Emmys. Winfrey may well be the most powerful woman in show business, as strong an influence on popular culture as any male Hollywood mogul.

The next big daytime talk success was Geraldo. Host Geraldo Rivera made his reputation as an investigative journalist on ABC's newsmagazine series 20/20. After leaving that show, his first venture as the star of his own show was a syndicated special in 1986. The premise was that Rivera and a camera crew would enter Chicago mobster Al Capone's long-lost locked vault. The program was aired live. All through the show Rivera speculated on the fantastic discoveries they would make once the vault was open. When it finally was opened, they found nothing. What he did find was an audience for the daytime talk series that premiered soon after. He also found controversy, most notably when, during a 1988 episode featuring Neo-Nazis, a fight broke out and one "skinhead" youth hit Rivera with a chair, breaking his nose. In 1996, Rivera ended Geraldo and signed with cable network CNBC for a nighttime news-talk hour. Though often accused of sensationalism, even he had become disgusted with the state of talk TV, especially the growing popularity of The Jerry Springer Show.

A new era of daytime talk began with Jerry Springer. His is the most popular daytime talk show of the late 1990s, often beating The Oprah Winfrey Show in the ratings. Springer's talker began its life as another undistinguished member of a growing pack. Viewership picked up when the subject matter became more controversial and the discussion more volatile. Confrontation over personal, often sexual, matters is Springer's stock in trade. Guests frequently face lovers, friends, and family members with disapproval over their choice of lifestyle or romantic partner. Taking the drama a step beyond other daytime talkers, these arguments have frequently come to physical blows. The fights have become a characteristic, almost expected part of the show, which, indeed, is sometimes accused of choreographing them. The content of the series has inspired some stations to banish it from daytime to early morning or late night hours when children are less likely to be watching. Springer's production company sells several volumes of Too Hot For TV videos, featuring nudity, profanity, and violence edited from the broadcasts. Critics declaim the show as a further symptom of the moral decline of America, especially American television. Some bemoan the "Springerization" of the nation. Springer defends his show as reflecting the lives of his guests, and giving his audience what they want to see. The series' consistently high ratings, at least, seem to bear out his claim. Springer saw less success when the show became the first daytime talk program to inspire a feature film version, Ringmaster (1999). It was a failure at the box office.

With Springer and Winfrey still drawing large audiences, and Rosie O'Donnell's show a breakout hit, daytime talk shows faced the end of the 1990s more popular than ever. New contenders like former sitcom star Roseanne, comedian Howie Mandel, and singing siblings Donny and Marie Osmond have joined the veteran hosts in the battle for a share of the large talk audience, and new talk programs premiere every season. Many people say that they turn on the television for "company," and talk shows bring a wide variety of acquaintances into American living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. Their revelations, whether it is an unguarded moment with a celebrity or a painful confession from an unknown, give audiences a taste of intimacy from a safe distance. In a world many Americans perceive as more and more dangerous, this is the ultimate paradox of television, the safe invitation of strangers into the house. Whether they inspire sympathy or judgement, talk shows have become a permanent part of the television landscape.

—David L. Hixson

Further Reading:

Burns, Gary, and Robert J. Thompson. Television Studies: Textual Analysis. New York, Praeger, 1989.

Carbaugh, Donal. Talking American: Culture Discourses on "Donahue." Norwood, New Jersey, Ablex, 1988.

Fiske, John. Television Culture. New York, Metheun, 1987.

Mincer, Deanne, and Richard Mincer. The Talkshow Book: An Engaging Primer on How to Talk Your Way to Success. New York, Facts On File Publications, 1982.

Munson, Wayne. All Talk: The Talk Show in Media Culture. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1993.

Newcomb, Horace, editor. Television: The Critical View, Fourth Edition. New York, Oxford University Press, 1987.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York, Viking Press, 1985.

Slide, Anthony, editor. Selected Radio and Television Criticism. Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1987.