Talk Is Cheap

Summertime, and the easy are living. The big decision is whether to watch television or to read a good book. Here is a solution: Read a very good book about television. Coming After Oprah: Cultural Fallout in the Age of the TV Talk Show by Vicki Abt and Leonard Mustazza (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997) traces the transformation of television talk shows, from the early days of Phil Donahue, who had as his guests authors and political leaders, to what the authors call "toxic talk," the fare of today. This first book-length study assesses 10 years of the shows. Abt and Mustazza identify today's guests as "everyday noncelebrities, plucked from often well-deserved obscurity," to reveal -- or create -- secret lives. Such secrets would have, until recently, been wisely kept quiet. Vicki Abt is professor of Sociology and American Studies, and Leonard Mustazza is professor of English and American Studies, both at the Pennsylvania State University. They are not the first to note that TV talk shows are unpleasant. Walter Goodman, television critic for The New York Times, says that "by any reasonable standard, the programs, combinations of party games and confrontation therapy, are repulsive ... they are freak shows, with exhibitions of dysfunction in many forms." They're not the first, but the authors are the most thorough. Abt started the research as part of an ongoing study of popular culture and television programs. A brave soul, she watched and coded, hour after hour, analyzing and recording. She then went behind the scenes to talk to producers, hosts, guests and studio audiences. Despite the obvious observation of the cognitive level of the shows, they are lined up around the block to appear as guests. For example, Jerry Springer told Entertainment Weekly magazine in 1995 that his show received 3,000 calls a day (!) from people wanting to tell their stories. No surprise that noncelebrities want to tell their bizarre and horrific tales to a national audience. Why would anyone subject himself to such humiliation? The answer is easy. We live in an age of television, and short of being a serial killer, it is almost impossible to get on TV. Everybody watches television from the cradle on. It is only a matter of time until they all want to be on. The guests are brought to New York City or Chicago or Hollywood on a jet, driven in a stretch limousine that's equipped with a full bar and a cell phone, and housed in a luxury hotel adorned with designer shampoo and baskets of tropical fruit. The guest is then brought to makeup and to the hairstylist. Then, it comes time to speak before a national audience, so that for the rest of one's life, friends and neighbors will reference the performance, rather than the fact that you have the tan house on the corner. The alternative to appearing -- albeit to participate in a show such as strippers with large breasts; women who have been married eight times; cross-dressing among teen-agers; or men who behave better the worse they are treated -- is total obscurity. It is no contest. If you ever doubted the influence of Freud on today's culture, please note that not only the hosts and the experts, but every guest in the audience, gets to comment on the fact pattern. No one is too untrained or unschooled to have a theory of the behavior under scrutiny. Everyone may not come from Vienna, but everyone can play Sigmund Freud. All players are encouraged to provide advice, counsel, observation, therapy, praise and censure of the guest. Neither the host nor the guest must regard any subject as taboo or inappropriate for public discourse. The object of disclosure is to let the guest speak without immediate dismissal, or rotten tomatoes flying in his or her direction, or arrest. The guest may remind you of your friends and relatives in appearance and manner, but have the added "interest" of allegedly having raped his mother or performed some other antisocial and-or illegal behavior. The authors stop short of saying there is a plot to keep viewers dumb and numb to reality, but they point out the economic interests that control the ideas, information and entertainment which 220 million Americans (and countless others internationally) watch. They calculate that fewer than 50 men and women make the media decisions which set the level of our collective intellect. For the last half century, one studies sociologist Herbert Blumer when cataloging the mass media. He may have the last word -- in addition to having the first word -- on this: "Perhaps it would be accurate to say that public opinion is rational, but need not be intelligent." Abt and Mustazza are both witty and serious about trying to improve the level of television shows "short of getting rid of our First Amendment rights or our TV sets." As a person who takes my entertainment on a nightly basis -- my favorites include Seinfeld, Third Rock from the Sun and PBS repeats of The Lawrence Welk Show -- I tend to avoid any programs where there is a lot of crying and misery. Thus, I cannot claim to be expert on the thousands of hours of dysfunction which these scholars suffered through. I consult my pal, good at finance, who takes out the calculator. He crunches some numbers and opines that if a mere half of the 220 TV million viewers buy this book, it looks like Abt, Mustazza and Bowling Green have a best seller on their hands.

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