Taking in the trash
In their quest for higher ratings, have television talk shows gone too far?
It is all captured on videotape. Shannon wants to make up with her ex-boyfriend, but she has a problem: Calvin works for an escort service, and unless he gives it up, she’ll never go back to him. What she doesn’t know, however, is that Calvin is an escort not for other women, but for men. When he reveals that bisexual fact to her, she starts to cry—and the audience giggles. But Shannon gets even worse news when Calvin introduces her to Anthony, who turns out to be his gay lover. Anthony and Shannon duke it out verbally—at one point, he calls her “a gold-digging bitch. ” Calvin’s mother then joins the fray, strutting up to Anthony and telling him to “shut up. ” The pressure rises, the crowd buzzes, and as Mom and Anthony start shoving each other, the stage erupts into a tangle of cursing humanity . . .
And so it goes. The stage for that particular family drama last week was the Jerry Springer show. But it could have been any one of the more than a dozen audience-participation talk shows that crowd the daytime television landscape like mobile homes in a trailer park. With some variations, the formula—from Ricki Lake and The Montel Williams Show to Donahue, Geraldo and a new Canadian entry, Camilla Scott—is the same: an outspoken stu-
dio audience and a more or less charismatic host confront guests who are in need, apparently, of enlightenment or moral castigation. Every day, on almost every channel, the shows offer a parade of hour| long talk about subjects both o silly and serious. Click—incest, g Click—pregnant teenagers. =1
Click—a transvestite beauty | pageant. Click—the men of the KKK and the women who love them.
Confrontational, boisterous and cheap to produce, talk shows make for energetic, profitable television. And although some analysts say that their appeal is waning, daytime talkers still draw more than 10 million viewers in Canada and the United States every day. In recent months, however, a growing chorus of dissenting voices has arisen over the shows’ display of what often amounts to sheer human degradation. In stooping to conquer their chatty competitors, critics ask, have talk shows gone too far?
“In these shows, indecent exposure is celebrated as a virtue. ”
—William Bennett, co-director of Empower America
Last March, Jon Schmitz, a 24-year-old waiter from Oxford Township, Mich., appeared on the Chicago-based Jenny Jones Show to meet a secret admirer. Jones, a former comedian from London, Ont., had used
the secret-admirer stunt in the past, and it had been a hit with the audience. But this one took a tragic turn. When Schmitz was introduced to his admirer—a 32-year-old gay man named Scott Amedure—he said he was flattered, but added: “I’m a heterosexual.” Three days later, Schmitz fatally shot Amedure in the chest. Afterwards, he said that he had felt humiliated by what happened on Jones’s show. Amedure, Schmitz reportedly told police, “f—ed me on national TV.”
To critics like William Bennett, the Amedure murder is clear evidence that at least some talk shows have crossed the line of acceptability. Last October, the former U.S. education secretary, along with Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, launched an attack on so-called trash TV through Bennett’s organization, Empower America, a conservative public interest group that claims 400,000 members. Bennett and Lieberman asked that sponsors rethink their support of the “worst” talk shows, which included Jenny Jones, Sally Jessy Raphael, Geraldo, Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer. Armed with a list of show topics— among them, ‘Women Who Marry Their Rapists” (Geraldo) and “Now that I’ve Slept with Him, He Treats Me Like Dirt!” (Ricki
Lake)—Bennett charged that such programs were contributing to a pervasive “cultural rot” in America. ‘Today, we declare ourselves to be part of a resistance,” Bennett declared, “a resistance operation to the giant popularculture sleaze machine.”
So far, the Empower America campaign— mounted in TV ads and in op-ed articles written by Bennett—has had mixed results. Christian Pinkson, the organization’s director of communications, says that Empower America has received thousands of supportive phone calls. And he claims that several major daytime TV advertisers, including Procter & Gamble and Sears department stores, have withdrawn advertising from or developed screening procedures for the more outrageous shows—although he acknowledges that some of those companies’ efforts predated the campaign. (In Canada, there has been no official corporate response, but industry sources say some advertisers have begun to express “discomfort” with the more outrageous shows.)
Bennett’s campaign has sent a slight chill through the talk-show industry. Last month at the National Association of Television Program Executives meeting in Las Vegas,
Nev., Geraldo Rivera vowed that his revamped show, to begin next season, would clean up its act. “We’re getting rid of the sleaze—it’s all history,” said Rivera, whose talk show became infamous for its on-air confrontations with skinheads and neo-Nazis. “Frankly, I was sick of it.” Skeptics, however, note that Rivera has made the same commitment at least three times before.
If nothing else, the anti-trash campaign has put talk TV into the mainstream of public debate in the United States. Although he agrees with many of the criticisms, Yale University sociologist Joshua Gamson points out that so-called trash talk shows at least allow groups excluded from mainstream society—such as homosexuals—an opportunity
to speak. Behind Bennett’s campaign, adds Gamson, “is the imposition of a particular morality and the desire to shut some people up and keep them invisible.” Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, author of Hot Air, a new book on talk-show culture, says that such putative benefits are overstated. “The parade of freaks and victims on these programs,” Kurtz says, “defines deviancy down in a way that makes bizarre and pathetic behavior seem almost commonplace.”
In fact, the increasing sensationalism of talk shows has started to shake up the genre itself. Oprah Winfrey still remains No. 1 in the talk game—but her ratings slipped after her vow last season not to indulge in any more sleaze. And last month, after 29 years on the air, Donahue fell victim to low ratings and lost exposure in key markets. That was thanks largely to younger, hipper, and more sensational shows hosted by the likes of 27-year-old Ricki Lake, now the No. 2 talk show in the United States. “I don’t want to bring judgment against them,” host Phil Donahue, 60, said of his flashier competitors after announcing his retirement. “But I don’t have a particular interest in doing that kind of show, either.” The Canadian whose show will replace Donahue in many markets is well aware of the fine line between respectability and sleaze. Toronto-born Pat Bullard, a 37-yearold writer-producer for the CBS sitcom Grace Under Fire in Los Angeles, says that he has wanted to host a talk show since he was 12. A stand-up comedian by trade, he says that his program will take “a lighter approach” than other audience-participation talk shows. And when it comes to sleaze, The Pat Bullard Show, premiering in September, will stay away from it—probably. “People say, ‘Oh, don’t do that kind of sleazy programming,’ ” Bullard says. “But then you see the ratings and you think, boy, there’s a contradiction here somewhere, because people are watching these things and saying they’re not.” There are alternatives, of course. In the United States, Regis and Kathie Lee, hosted by the puckish Regis Philbin and the loquacious Kathie Lee Gifford, stages daily celebrity love-ins; in Canada, the perky Dini Petty Show manages a similar blend of star turns and human interest pieces. And there are the more sober talk shows, like Larry King Live on CNN or, in Canada, Jane Hawtin Live!, broadcast daily on stations in Ontario and Western Canada. Hawtin, a veteran of talk radio in Toronto, uses a simple format: no studio audience, just an hour of talk with one or two guests, and callers phoning in questions and comments. On average, the show gets 12,000 calls a day from viewers. That response, Hawtin argues, has to do with the higher-brow demands of Canadians. “The Canadian audience—I’ve always felt this—is different from the American one,” she says. Trashy shows, she adds, “don’t go in Canada because they’re too superficial.”
Another Canadian entry, however, is banking on the appeal of the American talk format. Bright, brash and airy, Camilla Scott pre-
miered last month on the Baton Broadcasting System. The target audience is the coveted 16-to-34 age-group.'“There’s a huge market for it and a huge need for it,” says Scott, a 34year-old Toronto actress. The show, she says, has no problems filling its 160-seat studio— mostly with teenagers—for the 7 p.m. tapings in suburban Scarborough. With topics such as “Reunite Me with My Best Friend” and ‘Teacher Makeovers,” Camilla Scott is light fare, clearly taking its inspiration from the New York-produced Ricki Lake. But Scott says that her show is different. “It’s a Canadian talk show, with Canadian values,” she adds. “We can do the same kind of thing here without having to be American trash.” Well, maybe. David Dean Portelli, a 22year-old Toronto bartender, says that he was approached by producers from Camilla Scott late last year. “I thought I’d go on the show and it would be a secret crush or something like that,” says Portelli. “But then they just kept changing the topic.” Finally, the producers placed Portelli on a show called “Camilla, Set Me Up with Someone as Hot as I Am!”— which aired last week. During taping, Portelli—who is gay and says he has no trouble finding dates—played interrogator, in Dating Game-style, to three eligible bachelors. In the end, he picked one, but the date never occurred. Instead, Portelli invited all
three “contestants” back to the bar where he works. ‘We just agreed to meet there, have a drink and laugh at the show,” he explains.
It is too early to tell whether Camilla Scott—which has been panned by TV critics—has found a secure niche in the daytime market. But it will likely have an uphill battle. For one thing, talk shows overall have experienced a sharp dip in audience. Canadian nationwide figures for the syndicated programs are unavailable, but in the Toronto market—Canada’s largest—their ratings have declined by about seven per
cent from 1994-1995. It is a similar story in the United States, where the Charles Perez show has already been cancelled and a handful of others, including Rolonda, Gordon Elliott and Tempestt, stand a slim chance of surviving into next season.
But the declining numbers likely have less to do with public disaffection than with market economics. With more than 20 talk shows on the air—up from only nine in 1991—many analysts say that the market is simply saturated. “Now that you’ve got a whole bunch of the same thing, they all suffer,” says Karen Newton, vice-president of broadcast operations for Media Buying Services in Toronto. “So many copycat shows went on the air that there had to be a shakeout,” adds Kurtz. “But I think this stuff will still be around in a few years.”
“This is America, and everyone’s entitled to share the microphone.
The crowd—most of them in their 20s—erupts into a chant as he enters
the Chicago studio. “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” The object of their adulation: a bespectacled, 52-year-old former Cincinnati mayor with carefully coiffed hair and a gravelly voice. Jerry Springer has become something of a cult hero to the college crowd— and while other talk programs have declined, his has steadily gained appeal in the major U.S. markets. In the face of the onslaught from moral correctors like Bennett, Springer says, “We’ve made no changes to the show, and the rules are the same: it has to be outrageous, it has to be interesting, and it has to be truthful.” Springer is a staunch defender of his show, and says that Bennett’s anti-trash campaign smacks of hypocrisy. “There is a kind of elitism in this whole issue,” adds Springer. Powerful people are on TV all the time—“and as long as they speak the King’s English, we say it’s OK. But then you get someone who isn’t wealthy, who doesn’t have title or position, and they come on and talk about something that’s important to them—all of a sudden we call that trash.”
After five seasons of dysfunctions, confessions and on-air fights, “nothing surprises me anymore,” he says. Except for one thing. His studio, he claims, receives between 2,000 and 3,000 telephone calls a day to its 1-800 line from people who want to be on the show. “People continue to want to talk about their private lives on television,” Springer says. “That surprises me. What they say doesn’t—I know all kinds of things go on in the world, I’m not naïve. But if it were me, I wouldn’t want to talk about it.” In fact, guests’ motivations vary. Some, like the seemingly endless parade of white supremacists, have a political agenda. Others, says Gamson, “go on because they don’t get enough attention in their lives— television provides a really quick route to that. For a lot of people, it’s seen as validating their experience, their existence.”
And what is the appeal for viewers? For one thing, talk shows offer a chance to indulge in easy morality. Then there is pure voyeurism, the normally forbidden delight of sharing a stranger’s intimate secrets. But perhaps what makes talk shows so popular in the ethically fixated ’90s is that they allow the viewer to be exactly the opposite—to be politically /«correct, to take guilty pleasure in someone else’s problems. As one viewer put it: “You know, you turn it on and somebody’s crying, and you laugh at them.”
As the credits roll on the Jerry Springer show, the camera shows Calvin and his mother, still feuding over his secret life as a male escort, confronting each other backstage. In the end, mother and son agree to talk through their problems. “OK, OK,” she says, and then turns to the device that has transmitted her family’s self-destruction to millions of viewers. “Would you please turn the camera off?”