Tabloid TV: Figuring out America’s obsession with dramatic daytime talk shows
by Amanda Marsh
for Advanced Composition, ETSU, December 2009
When I was four-years-old, my stay-at-home mom would watch Live with Regis and Kathie Lee each weekday morning as I played with my Barbie dolls in the living room floor. When I was eight, Mom would pick me up from school at 3 p.m. and we would arrive home in just enough time for her to fix me an after-school-snack before The Rosie O’Donnell Show came on at 4 o’clock. Although she didn’t spend my entire childhood glued to a television, my mom’s viewing habits reflect the cultural phenomenon daytime talk shows have become. Born in the mid-twentieth century from a simple combination of audience, guest, and host, talk shows are a guilty pleasure that Americans can’t stop watching. Viewers are continually attracted to the confrontational and revealing style of shows now labeled “tabloid TV.” What has made us such a curious culture?
Background of daytime talk
In order to discover why Americans are so fixated with daytime talk, one must first understand its origins. The morning and afternoon chat-fests of today evolved from popular 1950s game shows such as Queen for a Day. In each episode, several women would tell their depressing life situations for a chance to be crowned “queen for a day.” One contestant, Kate, told host Jack Bailey that she had seven children and if she won, she wanted a diaper service for her two-year-old and newborn triplets. At the end of the show, it was up to the audiences’ applause to decide which woman’s circumstances were deserving of the crown.
As the evolution of television continued, The Mike Douglas Show became the model for syndicated talk shows. Beginning in 1961, Douglas’ show focused primarily on entertainment, while neglecting political and social issues. Celebrities came on the program to promote their books, movies, and albums. Guests varied from two-year-old Tiger Woods, to Gene Simmons of KISS. Because of the success of The Mike Douglas Show, a slew of new programs arose with a very similar concept, including shows hosted by Joan Rivers, Della Reese, and Merv Griffin. These copycat programs ended by the late 60s, as daytime viewers found themselves bombarded by too many chatty entertainment shows.
Daytime talk show host Phil Donahue provided the backlash to celebrity-centered programs. Donahue, which ran for more than two decades beginning in 1967, embraced taboo topics that previous programs, such as The Mike Douglas Show, ignored. Donahue discussed issues such as gay parenting, cross dressing, and religion. This mixture of sincere and scandalous was influenced by the rising success of tabloid journalism’s entertainment-oriented news. In an attempt to attract larger audiences on a small budget during the expansion of cable television, “tabloid TV” was born. Although celebrity guests did appear on Donahue, it wasn’t for promotional reasons. Instead, famous people such as former President Bill Clinton, Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke, Michael Jackson’s sister La Toya, and gothic rocker Marilyn Manson came on the show to discuss the controversy surrounding them. Donahue also Allowed audience participation through questions and comments, which was eventually copied by other daytime talk shows such as Sally Jessy Raphael, Geraldo, and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
In the late 80s, Raphael, Geraldo, and Oprah built contentious daytime talk shows around the reality of “common folk.” A concept that is still duplicated today, audience members not only asked questions and expressed their opinions on-air, but they also had the chance to become the subject. Topics ranged from “Teens confront cheating parents” to “I am afraid of my own child.” Using “ordinary” people on talk shows is unpredictable. Since guests come on the program based on some sort of personal problem, hosts and producers count on the fact that their unscripted performance will give viewers the raw, emotional expression that keeps daytime talk shows on the air. As the number of tabloid-type programs increased in the 90s, hosts such as Montel Williams, Maury Povich, Ricki Lake, and Jerry Springer used everyday people to play out the most unique and sensational show themes in competition for the highest ratings.
Finding the niche
By 1995, about 24 daytime talk shows were in production. What did programs have to do to guarantee their survival among the surplus of sensational chat-fests? The key was in a host’s, and inevitably a show’s, ability to attract a niche audience. Even though talk shows had remained popular throughout previous decades, success in industry took more than the basic concept of human interest and a live audience to draw viewers. In order to keep their jobs, producers had to find the rare quality in which to build an entire show around.
Both Ricki Lake and Sally Jessy Raphael became talk show sensations in the 90s after finding their niches in the talk show biz. Lake’s youth turned out to be the key to her success. She attracted a previously unreached audience of younger and more culturally diverse people with tabloid show topics such as “I’m in love with my cousin.” On the other hand, Raphael, who was easily recognizable by her red-rimmed glasses, took an emotional approach and directed her show toward older women. Never shying away from true tabloid television, Raphael taped the first “ambush” show in which wives confronted their cheating husbands. Another trick that helped Lake reach viewers was spinning topics used on other daytime talk shows to fit her specific audience. For example, Raphael might air a show titled “Are your kids having sex in the house?” Lake, in turn, might tape a show soon after called: “My parents won’t let me have sex in the house!” Surprisingly, the two didn’t overstep each other’s boundaries and were able to build solid fan bases because each show claimed its own niche audience.
Sometimes a talk show succeeds because of negative press. Following Raphael’s airing of “ambush” TV, Jenny Jones followed suit by letting viewers witness the reveal of a big secret. A man named Scott Amedure came on The Jenny Jones Show to disclose his secret crush on another male friend, Jonathan Schmitz. On March 6, 1995, Three days after the show was recorded, Schmitz killed Amedure and was charged with first-degree murder. As a result, Jones received a large amount of scrutiny and had to testify in court. The storm of controversy ultimately helped her to connect with a specific set of viewers and secure her spot on the daytime talk lineup.
Maury Povich continues to build a tabloid talk show career by exploiting rocky relationships and unfaithful spouses. People often volunteer to be guests on Maury so that they may learn the identity of their child’s father. During the show, Povich holds the results of the DNA test in a manila envelope and cleverly baits audiences by continually promising to read the results later in the program. In the meantime, short video messages give each suspected father a chance to explain why he is or is not the parent of the child in question. Then, viewers see a snapshot of the possible father on a split screen beside the fatherless child. This allows them to compare their facial features and form an opinion. In the last 10 minutes of the show, Povich finally announces the test results. Upon hearing the news, upset guests will storm backstage to get away from the irate or celebratory audience, only to have cameras following right behind them. Povich has no trouble displaying personal drama to increase ratings, therefore creating his daytime niche.
Oprah Winfrey clearly found her place in daytime television by honing the concept of a “confessional” talk show. Beginning in 1986, Oprah banked in on tabloid-themed story lines such as “Alaskan men,” in which bachelors from Alaska were rounded up and brought to her show in Chicago. Eventually, Oprah transitioned to a more personal and socially conscience show that now includes celebrities, professionals, and volunteers as guests. Actor Tom Cruise appeared on Oprah in 2006. The show made headlines in entertainment news after Cruise danced around the set declaring his love for fellow actress Katie Holmes. With an amazing following of about 7.4 million people per episode, Oprah continues to attract an audience into her 24th season. She recently announced plans to end the show in September 2011.
Dividing a genre
Since 2000, success in daytime TV has required more than finding a niche audience. Talk shows have evolved and now air increasingly diverse subject matter. Although sensational tabloid television still exists, many daytime talk shows are beginning to drift toward formats that are more informative. Because audiences’ viewing habits are changing, the result has been a split of the daytime talk genre into two subjects based on shows’ main objectives. For example, the Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards first created two separate award categories for talk shows in 2008. One of them, “Outstanding Talk Show Entertainment,” featured 2009 nominees Live with Regis and Kelly, Rachel Ray, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. These programs all feature celebrity guests, and hosts who have light-hearted and comedic personalities. The other category, “Outstanding Talk Show Informative,” consisted of nominated shows Dr. Phil, The Doctors, and The Tyra Banks Show. Each of these shows present educational topics in an intriguing format. Nevertheless, this divide within daytime talk makes understanding the success of it even more important, yet complicated.
Why so curious?
Daytime talk show hosts and their producers may have schemed sensational ideas to keep their time slots, but why do we keep watching? I can think of two reasons. One, we are attracted to celebrity-based entertainment talk shows such as Live with Regis and Kelly and The Ellen DeGeneres Show because it gives us a glimpse of our favorite movie stars being themselves instead of a character they played on the big screen. Two, reality-based concepts like Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer are from two different sides of the spectrum, yet their use of supposedly real, non-scripted individuals triggers a curiosity to compare our own lives to those on the show. For these reasons, it becomes increasingly difficult to change the channel.
When looking at talk shows from a more educational point of view, others can point out talk shows’ weaknesses without hesitation. They say the programs give viewers, especially young ones, a warped sense of reality because of the sensational show topics. Another claim is that talk shows allow tragedy to become entertainment, and lead audiences to believe that all social issues can be solved in 30 minutes. These statements may have some validity to them. Shows like Jerry Springer consist of an hour of organized chaos as verbal wars break out between guests and the audience while bodyguard Steve Wilkos, who now has his own daytime talk show, breaks up fights on stage. In the last few minutes of the show, however, Springer comes back from a commercial break with a significantly calmer tone and takes a few moments to give an overview of the show. During this, he has a unique way of making viewers think the problems dealt with on the show were either solved or they weren’t very important to begin with. Springer always ends his shows with the signature saying: “Till next time, take care of yourself … and each other.”
Daytime talk show producers say people watch their shows for three reasons.
1. Viewers often identify with the issue or problems talked about on a particular program.
2. Listening to guests’ problems gives viewers a mentality that their lives aren’t as bad as they may seem.
3. Producers believe people are drawn to watch others talk and act in a way that they never could.
Producers have nicknamed this third reason the “freak-show gawk factor.” Apparently, having the ability to peek into the dysfunctional lives of others without anyone else knowing, gives all the more reason to waste 30 minutes to an hour of our day staring at the boob tube.
Summing it up
Even though daytime talk shows continue to air sensational topics, viewers are still tuning in to see who’s messed-up life will be exposed today. Growing from game show roots, daytime talk shows became sensational gab-fests and are currently evolving into both informational and entertainment oriented television. Despite the many theories behind America’s addiction to daytime talk, hosts continue to find new ways to spin the basic technique of host, guest, and audience, in order to bait a new niche audience. Therefore, the talk show madness continues.
Davis, Stacy and Mares, Marie-Louise. “Effects of Talk Show Viewing on Adolescents.” Summer 1998 issue of the Journal of Communication.
Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards. Nominees and winners in the 36th annual awards ceremony held on August 30, 2009. Accessed October 27, 2009. http://www.emmyonline.org/mediacenter/daytime_36th_telecast_winners.html,
Grindstaff, Laura. The Money Shot: Trash, class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows. The University of Chicago Press in Chicago 2002.
Matelski, Marilyn J. “Jerry Springer and the wages of fin-syn: the rise of deregulation and the decline of TV talk.” Journal of Popular Culture issue 33.4 in 2000 on pages 63-75.
Murray, Mark. “Breaking down Oprah’s Numbers.” MSNBC’s Web site December 7, 2007. Accessed Nov. 4, 2009 http://firstread.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2007/12/07/502240.aspx.
Oprah.com. “The Oprah Winfrey Show to End September 2011” and “Oprah’s most memorable moments.” Press Room. Accessed Dec. 9, 2009. http://www.oprah.com/article/pressroom/pressrelease/20091119-orig-oprah-winfrey-plans-end-tv-talk-show/2 and http://www.oprah.com/slideshow/food/partyplanning/pkgholiday/slideshow1_ss_celebrate/4
Young, Susan. “Talkshow split gives gabbers a new life,” Daily Variety March 26, 2008.
The information under the “Background of daytime talk” and “Finding the niche” subheadings was compiled from two sources. One of them was “Jerry Springer and the wages of fin-syn: the rise of deregulation and the decline of TV talk,” supplied the information about The Mike Douglas Show and the new brand of “common folk” talk shows found in the “Background of daytime talk” subheading. Although the article is nine years old, I did not use it for the purpose it was written, which was to discuss the changes and regulations in syndicated television. I was only concerned with the portion of the piece called “A brief history of TV talk shows.” The second source provided specifically the information about Queen for a day and Phil Donahue came from pages 48-53 of The Money Shot: Trash, class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows by Laura Grindstaff, who is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis.
Many of the references to the titles and examples of actual daytime television talk shows came from viewing various clips on www.youtube.com. A list of the selected titles is included below. I also pulled talk show titles and information for the discussion of Ricki Lake, Sally Jessy Raphael, Jenny Jones, and Oprah Winfrey from the second chapter of The Money Shot. The viewership of Oprah was found in “Breaking down Oprah’s Numbers.” “Jerry Springer and the wages of fin-syn: the rise of deregulation and the decline of TV talk,” provided information about Jerry Springer used in the second paragraph of the “Why so Curious?” subheading.
The information about the Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards first came from “Talkshow split gives gabbers a new life” by Susan Young. I found more detailed information from the Emmy Website, which named both the categories and nominees for the 2009 awards that were held on August 30.
Under the “Why so curious” subheading, the weaknesses of daytime talk were found in “Effects of Talk Show Viewing on Adolescents.” Although it is more than 10 years old, it stands as a legitimate reference because it was published during the surge of daytime talk shows. Various producers’ reasonings as to why daytime talk is popular comes from page 63 of Grindstaff’s book The Money Shot.
YouTube, a Web site in which others can share and watch video, supplied me with visual examples of talk show topics and guest, which were mentioned in the “Background of daytime talk” subheading. The site, www.youtube.com, was accessed at various times between October 27 and November 28, 2009. The following is a list of video titles on YouTube that aided in the essay.
Queen for a Day:
The Mike Douglass Show:
· Guest example – “Gene Simmons on the Mike Douglas Show 1974”