Television can be very informative. Your local public broadcasting station puts on very educational and thought-provoking programming every day, and yet not many people watch it. Why? Well, let me give you some reasons…“You’re Only Thirteen… Stop Trying To Have A Baby”, “Taking The Test: Shocking Family Sex Secrets Exposed”, “Heartless Home Wreckers”. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Turn on a television in the afternoon and you’re likely to find it cluttered with children’s programming (educational or otherwise), sexed-up soap operas, or talk shows. Children’s programming and soap operas can take up their own articles, so I’m mainly going to focus on the latter.
What is it about talk shows today that glues us to the tube? Is it information? Well, that depends on the show. Some talk shows actually do try to be informative, even if you have to get past the host to get something out of it. The two biggest shows in this category are The Oprah Winfrey Show, and its spin-off Dr. Phil. Both of these shows were originally designed with the purpose of bringing information to the masses, but suffer from hosts that have outgrown their instructive natures, and instead, turned into vehicles about the host. Oprah is a perfect example. When Oprah started in the eighties, she had no aura of being ‘Oprah: god of women’s thoughts and feelings’. She was just a former reporter who broke into the talk show ring by providing informative shows on a variety of subjects.
Today, she still does this, but her celebrity status (and the dilution of her duties between charities, magazines, clothing, etc.) has clouded a lot of what she set out to do in the first place. So instead of getting more episodes about how to improve your quality of life, we get shows like, “Stedmond and I have a secret daughter, and it’s our dog!”. Then she hocks one of her Angel Network sweaters, which you can preview in O magazine after it’s over. It’s a sign of the times. A dollar sign, to be exact. Information doesn’t pay for the fancy cars, shoes, hair and makeup products. Marketing does. So you can’t get your info unless you get the plug for Product X in exchange. Oprah was smart enough to know where the brass ring was, and knew how to speed up the carousel to get to it first (with Dr. Phil McGraw riding side-saddle) in the wake of Phil Donahue’s departure.
So, when Oprah decides to lead in a certain direction, others follow (After all, she’s been at this a while, so something must be working correctly for her.). When big celebrities started doing her show, she started phase two of the talk show game: celebrities chatting with celebrities. Most hosts tend to come in two flavors: former or current reporters and/or celebrities. For every Geraldo, we had a Rosie O’ Donnell. For every Jane Pauley, we had a Sharon Osbourne. Obviously somewhere along this line we have some that become something of a mainstay (Sally Jesse Raphael, Montel Williams, the aforementioned O’ Donnell), and a ton that fail miserably and go on to something else. These hosts try to hold together a show by some modicum of decency while informing, and more importantly, entertaining. Would people watch Ellen Degeneres nearly as much if she didn’t dance, shout ‘KAW!’ at the top of her lungs, and have A-list celebrities stopping by every day? Probably not. Her selling point is her quirkiness, and it’s that quirky alternative that keeps her in the game. She sells herself more than anything else, and that works for her, unlike Martha Stewart, who sells herself as a brand (and is more ‘how-to’ than talk anyway). Besides, if the world was ending as we speak, would you trust that information reported to you by Ellen? I doubt it. These hosts act as a buffer zone between the information providers and the other form of host, the panderers.
Panderers are a scary breed because you never are quite sure of what to make of them until they show their true colors. The two biggest panderers of free television currently are Maury Povich and the infamous Jerry Springer. Both of these hosts are interesting in a couple of ways. They both started in hard news (and in Springer’s case, politics), and had shows that morphed from being information providers to one-trick ponies. Dirty ponies that spent most of their time wallowing in mud made of money. In Povich’s case, most of his shows at the beginning of his run were on par with those of Sally Jesse and Montel: informative one-on-one chat sessions with real people and real problems. Then something snapped. Today, Maury only seems to have a couple cards up his sleeve, namely in the form of paternity tests, disfigurements, and the ever popular ‘Once I was not, but now I am hot’ segments. And he rotates these shows ad nauseum. Sorry Maury, but filling your audience full of whoopers and hollerers screaming ‘THAT’S A DUDE!’ at transvestites, does not an interesting show make. He needs a makeover, or maybe needs to get out of the game entirely, because the current state of his show is like a Jenga tower… pull the wrong piece and watch it collapse under its own weight.
And then there is Jerry Springer, friend to redneck stripper hookers (as long as the check clears) everywhere. His show is the epitome of a talk show one-eighty. The Jerry Springer Show actually got its start on WLWT in Cincinnati, and if you had seen it back then, you’d swear he was a carbon copy of Montel Williams today (laid back one-on-one interviews only with him standing the audience as he does now). Then he moved to Chicago to continue the show, with basically the same format. But, somewhere along the way, things changed. Either his ratings were bad, or his show wasn’t pulling the right demographic (which demographic he was aiming for is anybody’s guess), because somehow it went from pleasant talk show to a raging orgy of sins and sinners against morality and genuine good taste (not like that is always a bad thing, but on daytime television?!). You know when they permanently affix a stripper pole to the set, something’s amiss.
Jerry has mastered the art of manipulation. You don’t spend years in politics and not know how to manipulate people. It’s become almost a fixation to him making America (and other parts of the world too) watch the train wrecks of society, staged or not. I find it hard to believe that the homosexual brother of a woman was sleeping with the dad of her best friend while dressing as babies for therapy, but whatever. There’s an audience for it showing their breasts and hollering obscenities anyway. Even when he tries to be serious during his ‘Final Thought’ segment, it quickly dissolves into a moot mess due to the circus before and after it. Why bother with the thoughts at all? The audience sure doesn’t care.
In a world of information sharing in a digital age, I’m almost tempted to believe everything on the internet. Like it or not, it’s not much farther from the truth than talk shows are these days. It just comes down to, “Who do you believe?”; is it the man who hands you the candy with the razor blade in it, or the one who coats broccoli in caramel and calls it a taffy apple? Sometimes the decision doesn’t always help you in the long run. So the next time you watch the talk shows on television, ask yourself if the candy is worth it if you have to work it off in the long run.