An increasingly vast segment of the American population would be shocked to learn that not too terribly long ago daytime TV was dominated by reruns of TV shows, soap operas, and game shows. At one time there was only one discussion talk show of any renown and it was hosted by a white-haired fellow in glasses named Phil Donahue. For many years, Phil Donahue had the playing field entirely to himself and he usually appeared in the middle of the morning. The very idea of real women talking about menopause or adultery or sexual dysfunction or child abuse in the afternoon when the kids were home from school seemed ludicrous. Back then people looked to each other for advice on such things and most would have been too ashamed to go before millions on TV and admit to the emotional traumas that pass for afternoon entertainment on a daily basis today.
The reality is that there were other talk shows on daytime TV back then, but you might find them scheduled at any point in the day, and even sometimes during late night. These were talk shows that were hosted by celebrities like Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin and they were reserved not for average people to discuss their problems, but for celebrities to pitch their latest artistic endeavor. Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin style talk shows live on today in current incarnations hosted by the likes of Ellen DeGeneres and Tony Danza. These are light and breezy and not meant to spotlight the social stresses affecting American lives, but rather to give them an hour’s relief.
It was Phil Donahue, however, who really set the stage for the landscape of contemporary daytime TV. Whether that is a good thing or bad thing is up to you. Donahue, it must be stated, differed dramatically from most of his offspring. Although his show certainly covered a number of tabloid-level topics, the overall tone of his show was more highbrow than today’s crop of daytime discussion shows. His guests included not just regular people, but also celebrities and scholars and the infamous. He was a guy who had the seemingly unique talent of being able to ask a cogent question while also extracting from even his most oppositional guests a nugget of truth that revealed a fundamental flaw in their reasoning. He was on top of the world and seemed invincible; there would never be anybody to topple him from his perch. He was the daytime equivalent of Johnny Carson.
And then along came Oprah. Oprah presented a challenge to Donahue’s dominant position and in the process opened the floodgates. The primary difference between Phil Donahue’s talk show and Oprah Winfrey’s talk show was that Phil attempt to make the personal universal, while Oprah was intent on making the universal personal. There was an intimacy to the relationship between Oprah and her guests and audience members that sent the daytime talk show off in a new direction. That direction was not a good one. By encouraging guests to reveal everything Oprah established the concept of making every imaginable topic open to revelation on national television. Before long she found herself increasingly doing shows about deviant sexuality and it became obvious that the more extreme the topic, the higher the ratings.
This was not lost on those hoping to copy her success. Leaving Phil Donahue’s approach behind, tagged as old-fashioned and outdated, daytime talk shows exploded. There was Sally Jessy Raphael in her signature glasses doing a show on nude evangelists. There was Geraldo Rivera getting his face smashed with a chair tossed by a moron from the KKK. There was Jerry Springer whose every show speaks for itself. Such was the success of these shows that producers began scouting for anyone who could stand up and not be totally embarrassed by what the being forced to do. Successful actresses like Ricki Lake gave up her career and became a host. Has-beens and never-wases by the dozens lined up to try their hand at interviewing 13 year old prostitutes and Siamese twin midget porn actors. Each show struggled to outweird the others and for the first time in TV history afternoon television belonged not to children, but to adults so miserable with their own lives that they obsessively sought out evidence that there were other people who actually had it worse than they. How else to explain the extraordinary popularity of shows that daily featured a glimpse into the most sordid details of the most intellectually-challenged and emotionally crippled people one could ever not hope to find? The only possible explanation is that these shows drew in such massive audience numbers precisely because the guests and their pathetic stories actually served to make viewers feel better about their own lives.
It is equally pathetic to imagine that there are people so devoid of actual acquaintances capable of giving them advice that they actually turn to someone like Tyra Banks to receive insight into anything other than makeup tricks. The current stage of daytime talk shows has moved away from an endless parade of freaks to positioning celebrity hosts as founts of knowledge. Who in their right mind would actually seek out advice from Tyra Banks on anything, or Rachael Ray on anything but cooking? The conceptual basis of daytime talk shows today is one in which the host is seen as some kind of all-knowing, impossibly wise Zen master who is able to dole out useful and profound advice on any number of subjects. Is this evolution in the business of daytime discussion programs preferable to the days of trailer trash girls catfighting over a fat, toothless, balding landlord? That question remains to be answered.