Still Talking It Over
It started slowly. One man, one microphone, one show. For two decades, Phil Donahue was a virtual loner on the talk show scene, giving average Americans a place to air their opinions and reveal their secrets to other Americans sitting in their living rooms like no show before.But in 1986 came Oprah Winfrey, then Geraldo Rivera, then Sally Jesse Raphael. Within five years, a new crop of talk shows had popped up in syndication, on networks and on cable. This group of successful talk shows spawned its own slew of imitators, and by 1994, more than 20 talk shows were on the air, earning an estimated combined profit in the same ballpark as the operating profit earned by NBC -- $400 million to $500 million.Then came the real flood. A variety of unemployed TV actors got talk shows. Marilu Henner, Tempestt Bledsoe and Gabrielle Carteris had short-lived careers as talk show hosts, as did Carnie Wilson, Charles Perez and Mark Wahlberg. And as the competition grew more fierce, the shows became more bizarre. While defenders of the genre claimed they were offering entertainment and providing a forum for average people, shows exploring dysfunctional family relationships and sexual fetishes became the norm.Talk shows began looking more like freak shows, and they seemed to be careening out of control. Many observers were delighted when Rivera's nose was broken in a brawl during a taping on his show, but no one was laughing when, after the taping of a "Jenny Jones" show, a guest murdered the man who revealed his crush on him in a show called "Secret Crushes on People of the Same Sex." Naturally, there came a backlash. Former Republican Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., initiated a bipartisan attack on the shows, saying the shows had become a forum for immorality. Talk show producers were having their motives and values questioned across the country, and much of what was being called to attention was clearly indefensible.The 60-minute showcases of dysfunction that were being broadcast day after day packed in topics such as transvestite Nazi devil worshippers or calmer shows such as "I'm in love with my sister's boyfriend." Donahue's highest-rated show of 1991 featured a transvestite shopping spree. Rivera later restored to an on-air liposuction on his own butt. To compete for a share of the audience, shows pushed the envelope of decency and idiocy, grabbing for ratings in much the same way yellow journalism-era newspapers staged stories for the sell.Ultimately, those anticipating an Geraldo-style confrontation between supporters and critics of the programs were disappointed, as the controversy faded and the public's attention waned. Now, more than a year later, many, if not most, such programs seem to have weathered the storm as the nation continues to tune in in large numbers to hear the stories talk shows love to tell.Johnny Lee Clary has told his story on almost every talk show on the air. He remembers how some hosts coached him to be confrontational. He knows which hosts want to talk and which ones want to start a fight.As Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, the Tulsa resident appeared on the "Oprah Winfrey" show with the hope of recruiting members and helping the organization gain respect. Instead, audience members booed and called him names. Then he went on the Morton Downey Jr. show -- twice. Audience members threatened him, and Clary threatened back."Morton Downey was in my face cussing at me and blowing smoke in my face," Clary said.Before the shouting match was over, guards carried Clary off the stage.In 1989, Clary left the Klan, became a Christian and began putting his life back together. He formed a ministry called Operation Colorblind to fight racism. Since then, he's been on "Donahue," "Jerry Springer," "The Montel Williams Show," "Caryl & Marilyn Real Friends," "The Geraldo Rivera Show" twice and "Sally Jessy Raphael" three times."I used those talk shows as a vehicle to spread hate and segregation throughout this country, and I thought why not use it now to spread love and integration?" Clary said."I had to come to the realization that most of the people that are talk show junkies, they are the ones that really need this message."On Raphael's show, Clary helped a teen-age skinhead leave the Klan. Raphael, he said, is a talk show host who sincerely cares about race issues. Others are more interested in capturing on-air confrontations.Clary taped an episode of "Rolanda," but producers pulled the episode when he refused to quit talking about his Christian conversion. Clary said he believes Rolanda's producers wanted him to get in a confrontation with the Klan members."A lot of the talk shows feel like hate sells, and they just want to get their ratings up there and get in a confrontation situation like the 'Rolanda' show," Clary said. "All they were interested in was a brawl. They wanted to see a fight between me and the KKK."Such confrontations accomplished little more than riling up audiences. Talk show critics asked producers to do something more with their shows than referee disputes they had helped create.In the fall of 1995, a Talk Summit brought together representatives from 13 talk shows and experts on health, disease prevention and communication. Population Communications International, a New York-based group that promotes family planning to slow population growth, hosted the summit to address the power of talk shows to impact social and health issues, especially for teen-agers.PCI senior vice president Sonny Fox, who organized the event, has a long history in TV. He hosted "The $64,000 Dollar Challenge" game show and served as vice president of children's programs for NBC."I think there were far too many talk shows that had exploded from maybe four or five to 20 in a very short space of time," Fox said."In the tremendous explosion of talk shows, they grabbed anyone that seemed to know anything about talk shows and put them into producer positions. It kept replicating itself until what I defined as creative bankruptcy occurred, when you have 15 shows, each doing the same thing."Talk shows became so loathed and loved that they spawned parodies. "Night Stand With Dick Dietrich" re-enacts common talk show formulas ranging from the confrontation to the surprise guest to TV marriage proposals. E! Entertainment Television launched "Talk Soup," a dose of talk show clips hosted by stand-up comic John Henson.No matter how deplorable the content of talk shows, many create their own sense of morality. Audiences cheer and boo, praise and scold guests for the choices they have made. Alleged experts try to guide them down a better path for the future. The whole event comes off like a modern morality play. Talk show host Montel Williams said that's part of what keeps audiences tuning in."Sometimes, the guests on these shows are expressing the point of view that you wish someone would say all along on TV," Williams said. "Every day there's someone to root for and someone to vilify."Like any kind of television programming, talk shows wield a certain amount of influence over public opinion. The message from critics was clear -- with such power comes responsibility. It was a bitter pill for some producers to take at the Talk Summit."They have been beaten up and flagellated so many times that they were like people with third-degree burns -- when you lean toward them, they cringe," Fox said. "They were filled with suspicions and paranoia."The summit focused attention on the influence of talk shows on teen-agers, who spend an average of two and a half hours a day in front of a TV."I think what we're after is really trying to get the people in the business to accept a certain degree of responsibility as communicators and think about those things as they write and produce their particular programs," Fox said.Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala challenged talk show professionals to offer some help after talking about problems."After you deliver the heat, I challenge you to add some light," Shalala said. At least one talk show host responded. A month after the summit, Rivera issued a talk show bill of rights and responsibilities outlawing ambush interviews and emphasizing light over heat, or solutions over shock value.In comparison, Jerry Springer defended talk shows, saying they have a better record of morality than many in Washington, D.C. But, by some accounts, talk shows have started cleaning up their acts."There has been indeed a backing away from the more extremes that were pervading at that time," Fox said. "I wish I could tell you it was a result of the Talk Summit. The answer to that is, I think that was going to happen in any event."Williams said the criticism talk shows have received doesn't mean much to him. He said he's run a clean show all along."For some reason, William J. Bennett seems to have given the nation the impression that it's almost taboo to talk anymore, and I think the reason why people like him do that is because they don't want us talking about the things that affect our lives because they would rather be able to shove it down your throat," Williams said. "I really didn't buy as much of Mr. Bennett and his gaggle of complainers as being the reason why people said enough is enough."Williams' show, which began in 1991, has survived, while hordes of new shows have come and gone."I do a show that doesn't belabor what happened as much as we try to figure out why things happened and then try to answer those questions for not only the guests on stage, but the people at home living vicariously through those guests," Williams said. "It's obviously worked. There has been an onslaught of at least five to 10 to 15 shows a year, and they have come and gone, and we're still here."His ratings have placed "The Montel Williams Show" in the No. 2 spot nationally for six consecutive sweeps periods, behind "Oprah Winfrey.""All the things we talk about on the show are things that can be talked about at anybody's kitchen over dinner with any grandmother, mother and child at the same time," Williams said. In response to criticism, a number of talk shows have developed programs to help guests after they return home. Rivera, Raphael and Ricki Lake are among those who help guests connect with psychologists in their home towns to deal with problems after appearing on their shows. But Williams has the only show with a full-time psychologist to run an after-care program."This is something we did long before all the rhetoric started being espoused about talk shows," Williams said. "If I bring people from around the country to New York to basically let their life story be known, sometimes in the telling of their story, it evokes all kinds of emotional trauma. It can evoke some emotional strain, and when they go home they should have an opportunity to talk to somebody to sit down and work toward solving the problem."According to the media watchdog group Morality in Media, "The Montel Williams ShowÓ is in a group of talk shows whose content improved in 1996. The other shining stars were "The Gordon Elliott Show," "The Geraldo Rivera Show" and "Maury Povich."MIM's report issued in December chastised four bottom-feeding talk shows for having a high percentage of content considered indecent or harmful in a survey: "Jerry Springer," "Jenny Jones," "Ricki Lake" and the now-defunct "Richard Bey Show." The study ranked ÒSpringerÓ the sleaziest talk show, with 77 percent of his show's content considered muck. The show's executive producer, Richard Dominick, is a former tabloid newspaper reporter.MIM spokesperson Patrick McGrath said the cancellation of the ÒRichard Bey ShowÓ could signal that sleaze doesn't always bring in the ratings."The ratings weren't enough to support at least one sleaze show, whereas, on the other hand, the better ones seem to be surviving," McGrath said. "We're going to keep our eyes open on this issue, and if a lot more major weirdness comes down the pike, we'll be open to further study of the genre."For all the criticism talk shows have received, "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" is earning its share of accolades. Since the show debuted last June, O'Donnell's brand of "happy talkÓ has some critics hoping niceness on daytime TV will be the next trend.The Queen of Nice doesn't grill her celebrity guests, but makes a show of adoring them. She shamelessly wooed Tom Cruise on air for months before he appeared on her show, and she later staged "Elton John Suck Up Day" and "Barbra Streisand Suck Up Day." Her approach has worked so far, with an estimated 4.5 million viewers tuning in each day.O'Donnell's daytime version of late-night talk shows is modeled after shows hosted by Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas decades ago. Talk show publicist and psychotherapist Carolyn Bushong sees the popularity of O'Donnell's show as the first step toward greater diversity in the genre. But Williams said the show's success hinges more on O'Donnell's personality than on the show's format."Hollywood doesn't create anything new -- we just reinvent the wheel," Williams said. "There's been a Rosie for the last six years, and they don't get credit for it, and that's been Regis and Kathie Lee. What people don't realize is it's not the format that works, it's Rosie that works."While it has changed the talk show landscape, Williams does not think "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" will spur a new trend."There may be room for one more, but there's definitely not room for 10 more," Williams said. "If there are 10 clones of Rosie O'Donnell, I'll guarantee you that nine of them will fail."Minus the weirdness in other daytime programming, "The Rosie O' Donnell Show" features such guests as TV and movie stars, authors, musicians and pop culture icons. O'Donnell alternately bursts into Groucho Marx comedy routines or throws a Koosh ball across the studio. She's buddied up with Madonna, but stood up to Donny Osmond for making a crack about her weight.As much of a star as O'Donnell has become, she worships other stars the same way legions of TV viewers do, which might be one reason she's gained such a loyal following. She has the star power to attract viewers, while other talk shows still have to resort to weirdness.The resident psychologist on "Jerry Springer" is the first to admit that some major weirdness happens on his show. As the expert who regularly appears for the last 12 minutes of a show, Robert Butterworth said he sometimes feels like he's following a circus elephant trying to clean up with a broom. But he believes that talk shows serve the important function of putting real life on television."The shows are not called, 'Oh, it's going to be nice and it's going to be flowery TV.' It's called 'reality TV,' " Butterworth said.Butterworth has appeared as an expert on talk shows for more than a dozen years. A member of the American Psychological Association, he acknowledges the APA is uncomfortable with "Jerry Springer."The strangest show he recalls featured truck drivers who act like babies at night."You heard about Geraldo's getting hit by a chair, but I got hit with a teddy bear," Butterworth said. "One of the little infant truck drivers got mad when I was saying 'Grow up and get real.' He threw a teddy bear across the room, and I got hit in the head."In one recent show, "I'm in Love With a Serial Killer," Butterworth tried to help a woman understand her relationship had put her family in danger. In another, he confronted slacker street kids about taking responsibility."As disgusting as it may be, a lot of people are really learning about the way some people's lives are, and maybe they can get something good from it," Butterworth said."We've grown up a lot in the last 15 years. A lot of things that were never talked about are now being talked about. A lot of people don't get a lot of education on a lot of things."Bushong, a Denver psychotherapist, agrees that talk shows can help the masses. Their style of pop psychology is actually educating millions of viewers about setting boundaries and improving relationships, she said."It makes them feel not as weird and that other people find solutions and that they can, too," Bushong said.If she has her way, viewers might be tuning into "The Carolyn Bushong Show" sometime soon. Bushong, a talk show veteran, began her own talk show expert booking agency when she couldn't fill requests for appearances herself. Psychologists, attorneys and private investigators are among her clients."I've been on 'Oprah' four times, 'Sally' seven times, 'Donahue,' 'Geraldo,' most of them," Bushong said. "I want to get on 'Rosie' when my book comes out."An appearance on "Oprah Winfrey" is what took Bushong's first book, "Loving Him Without Losing You," from a standstill to sell-out status. She hopes for a repeat with the release of her new book, "The Seven Dumbest Relationship Mistakes That Smart People Make."With her own talk show, Bushong said she would take time to explore issues in depth, but lighten up the show with humor."I think that what they do is they put too many stories too fast, too many people on the stage, and try to address too many things all at once, and it loses something," she said.Like most college students, Rhett Mullis occasionally catches talk shows in breaks between classes. But it wasn't until he sat in the studio audience of a talk show that they caught his full attention.While on a trip to New York City last May, Mullis joined the studio audience for a taping of "The Geraldo Rivera Show" called "Cradle Robbers." The senior computer science major at Oklahoma Christian University of Science and Arts said the show on couples with age disparities didn't help the guests resolve their problems, but instead glamorized them."I think they just take people's problems and use them for ratings," Mullis said. "I don't think the talk show hosts are really concerned with what's going on. I don't think Geraldo really was."Mullis took a turn at the microphone to ask a couple a question."A lot of the questions that are asked on television are already censored, so that they know what they're going to ask," he said. "It kind of limits it, because by doing that they can guide where they want to go with the program."While the experience left him somewhat disillusioned, Edye Smith found her experience as a guest on "The Geraldo Rivera Show" to be rewarding. Smith, who lost two sons in the bombing of the Murrah Building, appeared on the show with bombing survivors and family members of victims. She also appeared on "Leeza," as host Leeza Gibbons threw a baby shower via satellite for bombing survivor Dana Bradley."I know there are critics who say we just wanted to be on TV, but I think there's not anything better we could have done," Smith said. Smith said she felt she could help other parents deal with the loss of a child by talking about her experience on TV."If it can help someone, it's worth it," she said.And Smith -- who reportedly granted the National Enquirer an exclusive when she remarried her ex-husband and honeymooned in Hawaii in exchange for the publication picking up the tab -- dismisses the idea that talk shows are too sensational."But I'm very open-minded," she said. "I love to watch trash TV. I love to watch 'Jerry Springer.' It just depends on the person. But I would never go on and say some of the things and do some of the things people do."