Shock talk: no-holds-barred TV shows winning new fans. Flip on Oprah, Phil, or Morton and you may hear topics you'd blush to discuss with a friend

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`HEY, do you know what I saw on Oprah yesterday?'' ``You should see what they had on Donahue!''

These aren't shut-ins or middle-aged TV addicts speaking. They're excited students in Prof. Ren'ee Hobbs's communications classes - and what they're excited about is the fast-spreading breed of explicit daytime television talk shows so visible these days.

``When we discuss a news item, the students will remember they saw it on `Oprah' or `Donahue,''' says Professor Hobbs, a specialist on the merging of TV entertainment and information at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. ``To them, that's what makes it newsworthy enough to talk about with their friends. In my generation people would refer to Time or Newsweek. What these kids refer to are the new talk shows.''

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The shows getting her students' attention are now at an all-time high, boasting:

An impressive national daytime viewership - 8.6 million homes for ``The Oprah Winfrey Show,'' which debuted on national TV two years ago and now airs in about 190 cities.

No visible sign of slackening.

A spectrum of imitations and startling variations waiting in the wings, like ``The Gordon Liddy Show,'' debuting this fall.

An appeal which, according to experts, satisfies a whole range of viewer needs.

As with their TV cousins, those partly dramatized ``documentaries'' such as ``A Current Affair,'' daytime talk shows can deal with important problems like drugs, crime, or illness. Panelists can be serious-minded and highly respectable: ``The Sally Jesse Raphael Show,'' for instance, was recently host to former President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter.

But the genre is also known for explicit language and a topic list that, say many, homes in on the sensational like a Stinger missile to heat. If there's a bizarre practice that hasn't been unearthed, critics say, you'll probably hear about it first on a daytime talk show.

``It's like the problem with violence,'' says Les Brown, a noted media authority. ``Once you discover that violence attracts viewers, you have to keep escalating it to be yet more titillating. With these talk shows, it's the use of shock and aberrant behaviour.''

Partly for that reason, some analysts say, the form has now hit ratings that range from about 2.5 million homes up to 8.6 million homes for ``Oprah,'' according to Jo Laverde of Nielsen Media Research. And the format has spouted lots of variations. It can be an intimate confessional like ``Oprah'' or an aggressive expos'e like ``Geraldo.'' It can even be a shouting match like ``Morton Downey Jr.''

Producers knew they were onto something big when ``Donahue'' - the granddaddy of the genre - became a national hit about 10 years ago. Slice-of-life talk shows were already popular - including looks into the lives of celebrities. And talk shows had occasionally drawn attention. The controversial guests on Joe Pyne's show, for instance, were early proof of the equation strife = publicity = viewers. It was a case, some critics say, of the show-business ``law'' that bad material drives out good.

Mr. Donahue himself started out 20 years ago in Dayton, Ohio. ``At that time, it was unheard of to have the audience talk,'' notes a Donahue spokeswoman who has been with the show for 14 years. ``The networks were saying, `What do you mean, you're going to let the audience say what's on their minds. You're crazy.' We were considered freaks.''

The program began focusing on issues, she says, ``because you couldn't get celebrities to come to Dayton, Ohio. It became apparent immediately to Phil that some of the best questions were coming up during the breaks. So he turned the mike around and said, `This is wonderful.' That's how it all started.''

Now ``Donahue'' has jumped over to Britain, where it airs nationally.

What does Mr. Donahue himself think of the spate of talk shows hitting the airwaves?

``We were the ones out there taking that heat all by ourselves for a long time,'' he told me after doing a program in Boston recently. ``The Moral Majority declared war on our show about seven or eight years ago. Now we have more people working the street, and we welcome this competition.''

But what about some of those seamy topics?

``We shouldn't be surprised that more and more people are featuring women who murdered their babies and other bizarre issues like that,'' he adds, speaking thoughtfully and pausing occasionally. ``I happen to think this is good for us. If you go too far, if you're irresponsible, if you're a hot dog, if you're an ego-maniac, you will fall of your own weight. Let's welcome all these programs. They might make a contribution toward public consciousness.''

Professor Hobbs detects an attraction that crosses gender lines. ``We don't have many opportunites for discussion and communication in our daily lives,'' she says. ``Television in lots of ways has replaced that. It's becoming the place where you go to participate. It's gives you the feeling you know a television character personally. People enjoy the regularity of `Oprah.' You see her every day like you see a good friend coming for coffee in your living room.''

But is the lurid tone part of that surrogate friendship? Even if these shows are the closest thing we have to the lure of the oral tradition - campfire gossip and tales, with all the distortion and bombast typical of that form - why these subjects?

``There's a snoop in all of us,'' says Aletha C. Huston, a professor at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. A psychologist who often focuses on TV, Ms. Huston says that ``people do love to look inside other people's lives.'' She says this helps explains the spread of the intimate talk show form, however obnoxious it may be to some.

To Hobbs, also, ``There are intimate things we often won't talk about face to face - our sexual lives, our problems with intimacy, our marital relationships. On television, one can satisfy the prurient interest without having the embarrassment of an actual interaction.'' That's not all bad, many observers say.

``These shows have made people a little wiser about life,'' claims Mr. Brown. Such material sometimes serves to ``force-feed a little of the good stuff,'' he says.

That's the very purpose of ``Rivera,'' according to its star, Geraldo Rivera. He told the Monitor the aim of his tough-talking format - with its combination in-studio, on-location production style - is ``to inform and entertain, in varying degrees.''

Usually his programs do both, he says. ``Even in the show that's basically entertaining, I'd like people to take away some useful data, something they didn't know before,'' he says.

But for Hobbs, ``The question is agenda-setting: What are viewers learning about? Viewers do learn from talk shows. Lots of research supports this. But they might equally be interested in a range of other topics that aren't covered. There's no diversity.''

But there is involvement. Morton Downey Jr. - known for a kind of wild populism, complete with crowd-baiting and bellowing guests, is almost unrecognizable away from his noisy home arena. When interviewed on a traditional TV show recently, he proved soft-spoken and insightful, judging himself and the format with a cool reasonableness.

But on camera something else happens with Mr. Downey and the others, and a vital part of it is the studio audience. Jim Langan, who acts as Downey's right hand in getting the program on the air, claims the show's often raucous format ``has given people who are historically spoken to or at an opportunity to speak themselves. It's somewhere between rage and jubilation. The people at the show are boisterous, but they're boisterous together. They're united.''

Huston agrees that ``there is a sense of participation, because a live audience is involved. Television tends to be a fairly distancing medium anyway. One of things that's happened to it over the years is the feeling one cannot interact with the medium. If there's a live audience, and an interchange of the kind many of these talk shows have, it appears somewhat spontaneous.''

The future of the form? There's no immediate letup in sight. Relative new examples like ``Geraldo'' and ``The Sally Jesse Raphael Show'' have succeeded.

`The tribe increases,'' notes media critic Brown. ``Whether the form will accept Gordon Liddy is another matter. Some of these may fail, but this is not a sign that the genre is wearing out.''

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