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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 Alan BunceStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 5, 1988


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

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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.''

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?