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A tabloid talk show is a subgenre of the talk show genre that emphasizes controversial and sensationalistic topical subject matter. The subgenre originated in the United States and achieved peak viewership from the mid-1980s through the end of the 1990s. Airing mostly during the day and distributed mostly through television syndication, tabloid talk shows originated in the 1960s and early 1970s with series hosted by Joe Pyne, Les Crane, and Phil Donahue; the format was popularized by personal confession-filled The Oprah Winfrey Show, which debuted nationally in 1986. The format has since been emulated outside the United States, with the United Kingdom, Latin America and the Philippines all having popular shows that fit the format.
Tabloid talk shows have sometimes been described as the "freak shows" of the late 20th century, since most of their guests were outside the mainstream. The host invites a group of guests to discuss an emotional or provocative topic - ranging from marital infidelity to more outlandish topics - and the guests are encouraged to make public confessions and resolve their problems with on-camera "group therapy". Similar shows are popular throughout Europe.
Tabloid talk shows are sometimes described using the pejorative slang term "Trash TV", particularly when producers appear to purposely design their shows to create controversy or confrontation, as in the case of Geraldo (such as when a 1988 show featuring Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazi members, anti-racist people and Jewish activists led to an on-camera brawl) and The Jerry Springer Show, which focused on lurid trysts - often between family members. Vicki Abt, Ph.D., professor of sociology and American studies, criticized tabloid TV shows, claiming that they have blurred the lines between normal and deviant behavior. The genre experienced a particular spike during the 1990s, when a large number of such shows were on the air, but which gradually gave way during the 2000s to a more universally appealing form of talk show.
The Les Crane Show, a network talk show that aired on ABC as part of its late-night schedule from August 1964 to February 1965, was the first talk show to follow the format. Host Les Crane would bring on controversial guests, interview them in an aggressive but fair style, and take questions from the audience. Crane was the first to interview an openly gay man on-air and frequently interviewed black celebrities, folk singers and other taboo guests; Crane was rebuffed in his efforts to interview lesbians on one of his shows. The format was designed as competition to NBC's long-running franchise, Tonight, and its hard style contrasted with Tonight's more comedic format. The show generated significant controversy and was canceled after six months, later being retooled into a lighter talk show in an effort to boost ratings. Joe Pyne, a Los Angeles-based host, also hosted a similar talk show in syndication, although the focus was more on his confrontations with guests and less on audience participation.
The first widely successful talk show of the genre was The Phil Donahue Show, which debuted in 1970. Host Phil Donahue began to push the envelope with the discussion of topics deemed to be taboo, such as atheism and homosexuality. Donahue also distinguished himself from traditional talk shows by being the first to get off the stage, and take his microphone directly into the studio audience. For over a decade, The Phil Donahue Show was the only show of this kind; tabloid talk shows were not described as a genre, lucrative industry, or counterculture movement until 1986, when a relatively unknown 32-year-old woman named Oprah Winfrey became the first broadcaster able to challenge Donahue in the ratings. The Oprah Winfrey Show (which grew out of AM Chicago, a locally produced morning show that aired on ABC owned-and-operated station WLS-TV in Chicago) quickly doubled Donahue's audience, as her personal confessions and focus on therapy were seen by many as redefining the format.
Time magazine wrote about the program's format, "Guests with sad stories to tell are apt to rouse a tear in Oprah's eye... They, in turn, often find themselves revealing things they would not imagine telling anyone, much less a national TV audience. It is the talk show as a group therapy session." By confessing intimate details about her weight problems, tumultuous love life and sexual abuse, and crying alongside her guests, Time credited Winfrey with creating a new form of media communication known as "rapport talk" as distinguished from the "report talk" of Phil Donahue:
Winfrey saw television's power to blend public and private; while it links strangers and conveys information over public airwaves, TV is most often viewed in the privacy of our homes. Like a family member, it sits down to meals with us and talks to us in the lonely afternoons. Grasping this paradox, ... She makes people care because she cares. That is Winfrey's genius, and will be her legacy, as the changes she has wrought in the talk show continue to permeate our culture and shape our lives.
Winfrey continued Donahue's pattern of exploring topics that were at the time considered taboo. For an entire hour in the 1980s, members of the studio audience stood up one by one, gave their name and announced that they were gay. Also in the 1980s, Winfrey took her show to West Virginia to confront a town gripped by AIDS paranoia because a gay man living in the town had HIV. Winfrey interviewed the man who had become a social outcast, the town's mayor who drained the swimming pool because the man had gone swimming, and debated the town's hostile residents. "But I hear this is a God-fearing town," Winfrey scolded the homophobic studio audience, "Where's all that Christian love and understanding?" During a show on gay marriage in the 1990s, a woman in Winfrey's audience stood up to complain that gays were constantly flaunting their sex lives and she announced that she was tired of it. "You know what I'm tired of?" replied Winfrey. "Heterosexual males raping and sodomizing young girls. That's what I'm tired of." Her rebuttal inspired a screaming standing ovation from the studio audience present for that episode.
Guests on The Oprah Winfrey Show included Neo-Nazis, polygamous men and their partners, and Black and Jewish activists. By the fourth season, a show was dedicated to guests who claimed they had seen Elvis Presley alive in a variety of different locations throughout the country, with one man revealing to the host that he talked to the singer in his local Burger King. Oprah's best friend, former news anchor and talk show host Gayle King, said during a 2003 episode of A&E's Biography profiling Winfrey that when they recently looked back at an episode list of the first six seasons, Oprah could not believe she used to host such provocative shows. With titles such as "I'm a Cross-Dresser" and "Priestly Sins," King believed the topics "didn't seem so sleazy" when Oprah did them.
After the success of The Oprah Winfrey Show, many imitators began to appear, and by the time Winfrey negotiated the most lucrative deal in television (a deal that would eventually make her the richest African American of the 20th century and the world's only black billionaire for three straight years), the television industry exploded with copycats, each competing to be more edgy and provocative than the last. 1991 alone saw four tabloid talk shows make their debut: The Jerry Springer Show (which evolved into a tabloid format after the program experienced low ratings with its early staid topical style), The Jenny Jones Show, The Maury Povich Show and The Montel Williams Show. In 1993, Ricki Lake debuted her own show. With the abundance of these new shows, each of them was forced to compete with each other for higher ratings, leading to the shows covering increasingly outrageous topics in an effort to lure viewers.
Future Congressman Bob Turner, in his capacity as CEO of Multimedia Entertainment, was particularly integral to the development of the format, having launched Springer's show in 1991 and guided pre-tabloid shows such as Donahue and Sally (hosted by Sally Jessy Raphaël since 1983) into the tabloid era (Turner also oversaw more politically oriented talk shows hosted by Dennis Prager and Rush Limbaugh that did not follow the tabloid format). Turner oversaw the sale of Multimedia to the Gannett Company, which in turn sold the talk show assets to what would eventually become the modern-day NBCUniversal Television Distribution. NBCUniversal continues to produce the majority of tabloid talk shows still in production, including the Springer and Povich shows, the latter of which NBC acquired in 1998. After Turner's departure, he worked on introducing the format to the United Kingdom through his association with Pearson plc.
The subgenre is sometimes described in pejorative slang as "trash TV", particularly when the show hosts appear to purposely design their shows to create controversy or confrontation. One of the earliest of the post-Oprah shows was Geraldo, which was oriented toward controversial guests and theatricality. As an example, one of the early show topics was titled "Men in Lace Panties and the Women Who Love Them". One 1988 episode featuring racist skinheads ended in a brawl that left host Geraldo Rivera with a broken nose. This incident led to Newsweeks characterization of his show as "Trash TV". The term was subsequently applied to tabloid talk shows at their most extreme; some hosts, such as Jerry Springer, have proudly accepted the label, while other hosts, such as Jenny Jones, resent it.
One of the most extreme tabloid talk show hosts was former singer and radio talk host Morton Downey Jr. He would take Donahue's casual dismissiveness and transform it to open hostility directed towards his guests in the form of blowing cigarette smoke in their faces, shouting his catchphrase "Zip it!" at them, and occasionally ejecting them from the set. Though it was aired at night, and ostensibly dealt with serious political and social issues, The Morton Downey Jr. Show was a pioneer in the "Trash TV" subgenre; and its foul language, violent in-studio fights, and extremely dysfunctional guests led to it becoming one of the most successful television talk shows of its time, though its success was extremely brief and it was cancelled after two years.
In 1987, Rivera hosted the first of a series of prime time special reports dealing with an alleged epidemic of Satanic ritual abuse. He stated: "Estimates are that there are over one million Satanists in this country ... The majority of them are linked in a highly organized, very secretive network. From small towns to large cities, they have attracted police and FBI attention to their Satanic ritual sexual child abuse, child pornography and grisly Satanic murders. The odds are that this is happening in your town." After these programs, there were outbreaks of anti-Satanic hysteria in various American cities. He was noted for self-promotion and for inserting himself into stories: Rivera twice had plastic surgery on his program.
In 1993, Ricki Lake became the youngest talk show host in the genre, and her show targeted a young and urban demographic. A typical show might present several lower middle class women, each claiming to be "all that" (the show's catchphrase for someone with high fashion, personality, and sex appeal), with others debating the assertion. Other shows would present someone in an obviously bad relationship and have Lake recommend, "Dump that zero and get yourself a hero." Once Lake became a mother, family-oriented shows became more common.
The Jerry Springer Show would gain a reputation as the most confrontational and sexually explicit, with stories of lurid trysts - often between family members, and with stripping guests and audience members. Although the show started as a politically oriented talk show, the search for higher ratings in an extremely competitive market led Springer to topics often described as tawdry and provocative, increasing its viewership in the process. Topics included partners admitting their adultery to each other, women or men admitting to their partners that they were transvestites who had convinced their partners that they were a different sex, or revealing that they were pre- or post-op transsexuals, paternity tests, numerous features on the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups, and an exposé of shock rock featuring El Duce from The Mentors and an appearance from GWAR. Violence and fights between guests became almost ritualistic, with head of security Steve Wilkos separating the combatants before fights escalated into something more serious. Though frequently criticized, Springer claimed that he had no creative control over the guests. If they were making up their story just to get their 15 minutes of fame, he and his producers knew nothing about it. He even dedicated a portion of one of his shows to showing outtakes, in which he caught a lesbian couple lying about their affair. Springer went on indefinite hiatus in 2018, with the series continuing to air in reruns.
Maury would go on to become one of the most enduring examples of the format. Debuting the same season as Springer and likewise initially having a more serious focus, host Maury Povich over time developed a largely formulaic series that carved out a niche: by the 2010s, Maury had become almost synonymous with adversarial paternity tests and lie detectors. A typical episode of Maury features an urban poor woman, often with a checkered sexual background, accusing a past sexual partner of being the father of her child, which the man will categorically deny. At the end of the segment, Povich dramatically reveals the results of the paternity test; if the test proves that the man is not the father, he will celebrate boisterously, sometimes infamously in dance or by running into the audience to high-five audience members, as the mother runs backstage sobbing, while if he is determined to be the father, the mother will strut in triumph, sometimes holding a copy of the results and shoving the results into the now-proven father's face. By the 21st century, Maury had already earned a reputation as being "miles further down the commode" than Springer, and the name of the show would become a byword for dysfunctional parental situations.
On an episode of The Jenny Jones Show titled "Same-Sex Secret Crushes", taped on March 6, 1995, a gay man named Scott Amedure confessed his love for his friend, Jonathan Schmitz. Schmitz reacted with laughter while on the show, but became disturbed by the incident later. He had a history of mental illness and alcohol/drug abuse. Three days after the show's initial airing, Schmitz killed Amedure. Schmitz was later convicted of second degree murder and was sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison.
Amedure's family then filed a lawsuit against the producers of The Jenny Jones Show. In interviews, Jones said that her producers told Schmitz that his admirer could be a male, but Schmitz maintained they misled him into thinking it would be a woman. While under oath, Jones admitted that the show did not want Schmitz to know that his admirer was a man. Amedure's family won the initial ruling, and the show was ordered to pay them $25 million. The verdict was later overturned by the Michigan appellate court. The case is now studied in law school tort classes because of the legal significance of stating that the show's producers were not responsible for guests' safety after they had left the studio. Ratings for Jenny Jones declined in the years after the case, eventually being cancelled in 2003.
Donahue was also the subject of occasional controversy. In an episode dealing with transvestism, Donahue briefly wore a dress over his suit as a joke. Some critics complained that Donahue was sinking to the level of his more tasteless competitors.
By the early 2000s, the genre began to decline in popularity with viewers, and certain hosts either saw their shows cancelled due to low ratings (such as Jenny Jones and Sally Jessy Raphaël), died (such as Wally George) or voluntarily ended their shows to pursue other interests (such as Ricki Lake). Many media analysts have attributed the decline in popularity of tabloid talk shows and daytime talk in general to competition from cable and satellite television, and an increased number of women in the workforce (resulting in a corresponding decline in potential viewers for daytime television, a phenomenon that had also mostly killed off the tabloid talk show's predecessor in daytime lineups, the daytime game show, and would later force cutbacks in soap operas, another daytime staple, as well). Common presumptions indicated that viewers were tiring of the constant recycling of subjects that are often shown on such programs. Another explanation would be that the same audience shifted directly over to the new "Reality" TV and court show genre that rose to prominence at around the same time; most reality television and many court shows featured conflicts and raunchy material that would be normally seen in a tabloid talk show. (When Springer's show was canceled in 2018, it was replaced with a court show hosted by Springer.) As early as the late 1990s, hosts such as Oprah Winfrey, and to a lesser extent Montel Williams, began to distance their programs from the genre by refocusing them to incorporate more serious subject matter or staying on stage in the manner of more traditional talk shows. Another example of this trend was Geraldo Rivera ending his show in 1998 to focus on his CNBC talk show Rivera Live full-time. New talk shows also followed the trend of emphasizing less bawdy themes; The Ananda Lewis Show (which ran from 2001 to 2002) made a point of being an alternative to the tabloid style talk shows still airing at the time.
The Phil Donahue Show, seen by many as originating the genre, was cancelled in 1996 as it could not compete with the new crop of shows. Donahue and Rivera would attempt to re-establish their journalistic credentials on cable television: Donahue with a short-lived talk show on MSNBC, and Rivera going back to his "roving reporter" roots, filing reports on CNBC, NBC and Fox News Channel. Maury Povich began hosting a weekend news show in 2006 with wife Connie Chung on MSNBC while still hosting his daytime show. Weekends with Maury and Connie was cancelled after six months due to low ratings, and received harsh reviews by many of the same critics who criticized his daytime talk show. Jerry Springer, while continuing to host his televised "freak show", also hosted a more serious talk show on Air America Radio in the mid-2000s. The syndicated Judge Hatchett dealt with many of the topics of tabloid talk shows, but was set within the framework of a court show and was more direct in its efforts to intervene in the participants' lives.
Only a handful of the shows from the tabloid talk era remained in production as of 2011, and only one new tabloid talk show premiered between 2000 and that time: The Tyra Banks Show, which ran from 2005 to 2010, was a replacement for Ricki Lake after Lake quit her show. Tyras format was more contemporary in the style of Oprah and Dr. Phil, but had gone over the limits of her show by having her audience members appear in their underwear along with her and most famously, pretending to suffer the effects from rabies to a shocked reaction.
Tabloid shows have seen a slight comeback in the late 2000s and early 2010s, although with a greater emphasis on self-help than their predecessors (owing to the popularity of shows such as Dr. Phil). Steve Wilkos eventually left Jerry Springer and received his own syndicated talk show, The Steve Wilkos Show, which debuted in 2007. The once-defunct Tribune Entertainment ordered new pilots for tabloid-style talk shows hosted by radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge and conservative talk radio host Bill Cunningham, for a possible fall 2011 debut; while Bubba's show was not picked up, The Bill Cunningham Show debuted in limited syndication in September 2011 before moving to The CW (becoming the only talk show on U.S. network television not to be lifestyle- or celebrity interview-oriented) in September 2012; Cunningham continued to host the show until he decided to leave in 2016, at which point Robert Irvine took Cunningham's place.An American version of the British tabloid talk show The Jeremy Kyle Show also launched in September 2011. Ricki Lake and The Queen Latifah Show were both slated to return in September 2012, but with revamped, more mature formats (Latifah's as a more celebrity and lifestyle-focused program and Lake's focusing more on lifestyle and self-help topics) to reflect the hosts' increased age; also set to debut was a show hosted by Trisha Goddard, who hosted a tabloid show in the United Kingdom for several years. Lake's new show lasted only a year, and Queen Latifah's was delayed until September 2013 and was cancelled after two years. Goddard and Kyle also failed to gain traction with their U.S. talk show efforts, and both were canceled after two seasons.
Face the Truth, a half-hour series which debuted in the fall of 2018, attempted to cross the tabloid format with the panel show with host Vivica A. Fox. The program failed however, and was cancelled after one season.
In the scholarly text "Freaks Talk Back", Yale University sociology professor Joshua Gamson credits the tabloid talk show genre with providing much needed high impact media visibility for gays, bisexuals, transsexuals and transgender people, and doing more to make them mainstream and socially acceptable than any other development of the 20th century. In the book's editorial review Michael Bronski wrote "In the recent past, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered [sic] people had almost no presence on television. With the invention and propagation of tabloid talk shows such as Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Oprah, and Geraldo, people outside the sexual mainstream now appear in living rooms across America almost every day of the week."
Gamson credits the tabloid talk show fad with making alternative sexual orientations and identities more acceptable in mainstream society. Examples include a recent Time magazine article describing early 21st century gays coming out of the closet younger and younger, and the decline of suicide rates among gays and lesbians. Gamson also believes that tabloid talk shows caused homosexuals to be embraced on more traditional forms of media. Examples include sitcoms like Will & Grace, primetime shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and feature films like the Academy Award-winning Brokeback Mountain.
While having changed with the times from her tabloid talk show roots, Winfrey continued to include gay guests by using her show to promote openly gay personalities like her hairdresser, makeup artist, and decorator Nate Berkus who inspired an outpouring of sympathy from middle America after grieving the loss of his partner in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey's "therapeutic" hosting style and the tabloid talk show genre has been either credited or blamed for leading the media counterculture of the 1980s and 1990s, which some believe broke 20th century taboos, led to America's self-help obsession and created confession culture. The Wall Street Journal coined the term "Oprahfication" to refer to the concept of public confession as a form of therapy and Time magazine named Winfrey one of the "100 Most Influential People" of the 20th century.
Sociologist Vicki Abt criticised tabloid talk shows for redefining social norms. In her book Coming After Oprah: Cultural Fallout in the Age of the TV Talk Show, Abt warned that the media revolution that followed Oprah's success was blurring the lines between normal and deviant behavior. Television critic Jeff Jarvis agreed, saying "Oprah was the one that trashed daytime TV. She took the Donahue format and then brought on the whiny misfits and losers and screamers and shouters, and then everyone, including Donahue, followed her, until it went overboard. Then finally she came back and recanted and said, no, no, now I'm the queen of quality on TV." Talk shows were often spoofed in mainstream media, with Night Stand with Dick Dietrick being one of the full-length spoofs of the medium (complete with fake guests and audience members asking questions).
In the September 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Phil Donahue at his Manhattan penthouse in what she described as a "full-circle" moment. She wrote in the article's introduction, "If there had been no Phil Donahue show, there would be no Oprah Winfrey show. He was the first to acknowledge that women are interested in more than mascara tips and cake recipes - that we're intelligent, we're concerned about the world around us, and we want the best possible lives for ourselves."
In the interview, Donahue explained that "the show became a place where women discussed issues that didn't naturally come up, and certainly not in mixed company. Much of what we talked about on the air is what women had been talking about in ladies' rooms." Donahue recalled that he finally had to do a show about doctors who hated him because, for the first time, women were challenging their physicians. He also discussed how hosting the show helped him overcome his own taboos. "I put a gay guy on in 1968 - a real live homosexual sitting right next to me. I was terrified ... I'm from Notre Dame. And believe me that's the one thing you didn't want to be doing at Notre Dame was hangin' with gay people ... If you don't understand those feelings then you don't understand homophobia. There's a reason for the closet. As the years went by after that show, I got involved in gay politics, and through my activism, I began to realize what it must be like to be born, to live, and to die in the closet."
Donahue also commented on the new crop of tabloid talk shows, such as Jenny Jones - "One-Night Stand Reunions". When Winfrey reminded him "You started all this," he replied, "If that's what you think, I'm proud. What I'm most proud of is that we involved the audience more than anybody else in the game. People who owned the airwaves got to use them in this wild thing called democracy." While both Winfrey and Donahue admitted to having done shows that were "naughty", both wondered if newer shows like Jerry Springer had crossed over into a whole different territory. Reflecting on the genre as a whole Donahue added, "If you want to know about America's culture in the last half of the 20th century, watch some of these programs."
American tabloid talk is widely viewed in the United Kingdom. First-run tabloid chat shows are also produced in the United Kingdom (especially The Graham Norton Show), which are largely similar to their American counterparts, albeit more tame in style. Most hosts get more involved with their guests, rather than taking an apathetic attitude in a fashion similar to Jerry Springer and usually the audience is not as involved. Jeremy Kyle, for example, was known for his confrontational attitude towards those on his programme, The Jeremy Kyle Show, while others like Trisha Goddard are more pacifist. Springer himself hosted a series on ITV as The Jerry Springer Show. Vanessa Feltz's programme The Vanessa Show was cancelled by the BBC in 1999, as a result of the discovery that some participants were actually actors cast from a talent agency, although it was known previously for outlandish stories similar to the American shows.