It was a talk show host who recently said that “our culture is in decay.” When it comes to daytime national TV talk shows -and there are seven more new syndicated ones this fall — there is ample evidence that they are falling all over one another in their imitative race to the bottom.
There are now twenty seven of these shows following a formula of studied avoidance of any topic that challenges established power whether in the marketplace or in government. The topics involve interpersonal relationships where troubled or exhibitionist people shout, snarl and sometimes slap each other on stage.
The audiences are carefully selected, often prompted with provocative questions to ask the guest panels and even the guests are sometimes coached in what to say. These practices shock some long-time talk show hosts who consider such coaching a breach of the ethics of spontaneity. But then these veteran hosts never dared to put such situations on the air as the following routine show titles:
“When Your Best Friend is Sleeping with Your Father” (Sally Jesse Raphael); “I want my Guy to Cheat” (Ricki Lake); “Pregnant Women Who Cheat” (Jenny Jones); “Scrawny Men Compete Against Large-Bottomed Women” (Richard Bey); “Mom Stole my Boyfriend” (Jenny Jones); “Parents Who Run an Escort Service for Their Kids” (Geraldo); “Woman with 40-lb Breasts” (Sally Jesse Raphael); and again “Ten Year Old Girl with a 38C Bust (Sally Jesse Raphael).
Here are some more examples of the daily fare: “One-Night-Stand Reunions” (Jenny Jones); “Women Who Prefer Threesomes to Monogamous Relationships” (Gordon Elliott); “Married Mom Seduces 12 Year Old Boy” (Jenny Jones); “Customers Meet Their Phone Sex Operators” (Maury Povich); “Women Who Have Affairs with Their Relatives” (Jerry Springer); “Men Who Dress in Their Wives’ Clothes” (Leeza); “In Search of the Sexiest Blue Collar Hunk.”
Daytime Talk TV, which used to explore serious and dramatic issues, has become a bizarre version of a Dating Game Show. The audiences back home are narrowing predictably to lower income, single parent, unemployed viewers. The advertisers are adjusting accordingly with the products they parade on these screens.
With the use of companies that locate the most bizarre or wild or zany people on demand, the new wave talk shows don’t have to worry about alienating advertisers with shows about unsafe household products, defective cars, frauds by banks and insurance companies on consumers and the like.
Very little substantive preparation is needed for the wild, sadistic, trash shows except the logistics of keeping the antagonists hateful but not violent toward one another on the set.
These shows still use our property — the public airwaves -for which they pay us no rent, via the Federal Communications Commission by way of the broadcast stations. No sense of pride or responsibility leads them to occasionally during the month present subjects that inform, motivate or change conditions in our country for the better.
Citizens who work hard to better their communities are not considered for a moment; they are viewed as dull and not provocative of the gonads. There is no place on gonadal television for any of the show topics that used to be commonly presented such as victims of medical malpractice or communities wrecked by toxic pollution or political scandals. Only Donahue touched the massive S & L bank debacles that looted millions of savers.
So endless forms of sexual sadism, cruelty and masochism rule the roost and about everything else gets crowded out.
Last year, Oprah Winfrey, announced she would no longer do shows about what she described as dysfunctional behavior. Many of her shows are now about self-improvement. She actually has done hour long interviews with one guest and no live audience. Though her ratings are down 30%, she is still number one in the ratings which disproves the notion that only the violent, addictive and sexual sells.
There appears to be no mechanisms for criticizing these shows. To most newspaper television critics they are beneath contempt and unworthy of mention. Americans who never watch these shows — though their latchkey youngsters may — have no knowledge of how bad things are getting.
But forty million people watch these shows regularly. They may be titillated but they are being cheated by a systematic exploitation that would make the more inert National Enquirer blush.
Where will these shows push their next envelope in their frenzy to out outrage each other? Stay tuned.