Donahue, Phil (1935—)

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Donahue, Phil (1935—)

Talk show host Phil Donahue is credited with pioneering the daytime television talk show format. His programs introduced viewers to sensitive and intelligent discussions of topics and issues that had never before been seen on the small screen. From the debut of The Phil Donahue Show in 1969, which originated out of Dayton, Ohio, Donahue challenged, informed, and entertained daytime audiences and helped establish the talk show as one of television's most prolific and profitable formats. Beginning in the 1970s, his promotion of feminism, and the frequent airing of women's health issues on his program identified him as the embodiment of the "sensitive man." As daytime TV shows became raunchier in the 1990s, Donahue came to be viewed as the patriarch of the genre. While he did present programs with outrageous content—senior citizen strippers, for example—he continued to offer sober conversations about politics and social concerns and a mix of celebrity interviews. Phil Donahue's decision to treat the female television viewer as an intelligent, active, and aware participant in society challenged those programmers wedded to the conviction that women would only watch soap operas and cookery demonstrations.

For a man who later symbolized the modern era's willingness to talk openly about the most personal issues, Donahue's beginnings were very traditional. He was born Phillip John Donahue, the son of a furniture salesman in Cleveland, Ohio, on December 21, 1935. He was an altar boy and, after graduating high school, studied for a B.A. in theology at the University of Notre Dame. After completing his degree, he found work as a radio announcer in Cleveland and, later, Dayton. (One of his first professional positions involved delivering the five a.m. hog report.) His first talk show was a Dayton radio program titled Conversation Piece, which aired from 1963 to 1967. He later accepted a position with Dayton's WLWD television station

to host a local call-in talk show but, unable to attract top guests, he and his producers focused each episode on relevant issues of the day.

The Phil Donahue Show premiered in November 1967 with an appearance by celebrated atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who was considered by some the most hated woman in America for her anti-religion stance. That first week also included film of a woman giving birth and a discussion on the appropriateness of anatomically correct male dolls. Donahue's likable personality and his ease in addressing often uncomfortable issues tempered the daring subject matter. A further innovation was his solicitation of questions and comments from the studio audience, previously regarded as little more than background for hosts and their guests. Donahue's charm, coupled with his bold choice of topics, attracted national attention when he moved his show, renamed simply Donahue, to Chicago in 1974. The program was soon syndicated nationwide and boasted millions of viewers, of whom 85 percent were women.

In a career that spanned more than 6000 hours of programming, there was no subject that Phil Donahue was unwilling to confront and present to mainstream America. Some complained that his choices were often inappropriate or too outlandish. TV host Merv Griffin expressed the opinion of many when he complained that Donahue and his imitators were most interested in controversy and titillation. Griffin stated, "What they have to resort to in subject matter is sometimes a pain in the neck. You know, the sex lives of Lithuanian doctors and dentists is not all that interesting." Donahue did, indeed, parade bizarre guests at times and was not above risking offense to capture high ratings. He interviewed nudists, drag queens, neo-Nazis, and strippers of all sorts. The episode that caused the most controversy and hysteria was titled "Transvestite Fashion Show" and featured Donahue wearing a dress.

However, complaints that daytime talk shows peddled only salacious material ignored Donahue's many episodes that focused on serious issues such as race relations, class differences, and feminist causes. In 1982, he presented the first national program devoted to the AIDS crisis, and a high point of his series was a 1988 discussion of the disease in children, led by the HIV-positive boy Ryan White. Over the years the series also welcomed politicians and advocates from across the political spectrum to express their views. In the late 1980s, Donahue initiated a series of "space bridge" shows with Russian TV host Vladimir Pozner, designed to promote understanding between the peoples of the United States and the Soviet Union. The host's own stand on abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and other feminist causes, identified him as one of TV's outstanding liberal voices.

Donahue's success continued into the 1980s and 1990s. In 1980, the divorced father of five married actress Marlo Thomas, best known for TV's That Girl. The couple had met several years earlier when Thomas was a guest on Donahue's program. The series relocated to New York in 1985, but the following year saw the first real challenge to Donahue's ratings dominance with the arrival of Oprah Winfrey. The pair battled for the position of TV's top daytime talk show host for a decade until Donahue announced his retirement in 1996. The final episode of his show was a national event.

After his departure, daytime TV sank into a mire of freak shows, fights, and shocking behavior. The intelligence, curiosity, and humane probing that characterized Donahue's approach were sadly absent in an era filled with hosts such as Geraldo Rivera, Jenny Jones, and Jerry Springer. Where Donahue had sought to inform and entertain, others set out to demean, to provoke and to shock—an unworthy tribute to Phil Donahue's ability to present often controversial subjects to the mass American audience which had once appeared to mark the nation's growing willingness to confront previously taboo topics.

—Charles Coletta

Further Reading:

Anderson, Christopher. The New Book of People. New York, G.P.Putnam's Sons, 1986.

Donahue, Phil. My Own Story. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1980.

Winship, Michael. Television. New York, Random House, 1988.

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Donahue, Phil (1935—)

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