“Top Clinton official rips 'bizarre' daytime TV talk shows,” blared the front page of the New York Daily News.
Actually, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala used a softer touch when she traveled to Manhattan on Oct. 28 to address the “Talk Show Summit,” a gathering of sex-education activists and movers and shakers from the world of Oprah, Montel, Sally and Maury. That world, distinguished by such fare as “Men who wear diapers” and “Big breasts for a day,” is observed daily in millions of living rooms.
Shalala took the audience through a litany of grim statistics - every day some 1,400 American teens drop out of school, 1,000 give birth out of wedlock and 25 are infected with HIV. Then she issued a plea. “You and your colleagues are increasingly filling the vacuum once occupied by our traditional institutions - from family to religion, and from schools to communities,” she said. “I didn't come here to shake my finger at you. . . . I am here to challenge you - challenge you ethically as professionals and morally as citizens - to use your influence more responsibly.”
The speech contrasted with more aggressive comments delivered the day before by William J. Bennett, the conservative former Education secretary and compiler of the best-selling “The Book of Virtues.” He denounced the talk fests as “rot” that “degrades the human personality” and gives publicity to deviants. He vowed to pressure the major corporations that produce the shows.
Both speakers left few doubts in the talk-TV community that their often-bizarre antics are now grist for the values debate. Indeed, Bennett was followed a few days later by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who said that looking at the “five most popular [TV] talk shows in America” helps one “understand better why we are an increasingly ignorant culture.”
Ms. magazine recently devoted a cover story to the shows' excesses, recounting how producers for the Maury Povich and Sally Jessy Raphael shows competed to recruit a guest who had mutilated herself with a razor while removing her breast implants. “Most women on talk TV are perpetual victims,” the authors of a new book on talk shows and mental health wrote in Ms. “Women viewers are given a constant supply of the worst images of men, all the way from garden- variety liars, cheats and con artists to rapists and murderers.”
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., who joined Bennett in the attack, has ridiculed a Cincinnati TV station that sought credit for compliance with educational programming requirements for its broadcast of Phil Donahue's shows on “Teenage strippers and their moms” and “Parents who allow teenagers to have sex at home.”
“Talk TV is an unfortunate development in that, more than in prime time, the content is low-life, disgusting and sideshowesque,” says Kathryn Montgomery, a children's television activist who is president of the Center for Media Education. “It reflects a decline in social responsibility on the part of broadcasters.”
The 19 major TV talk shows reach an estimated 10 million Americans every day, many of them housewives, unemployed people, minorities and, increasingly, teenagers home from school. Fully 49 percent of African- American children told pollsters that they had watched a TV talk show the day before, compared with 29 percent of Latinos and 27 percent of whites, according to a 1994 survey commissioned by Children Now, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group.
Observers note that many young viewers develop strong emotional bonds with the shows because they deal with real-life relationships and feature people their own age. “Lots of kids come to school the next day and say, 'Did you see that show?' ” says Hannah Alejandro, a freshman at Boston University who serves as a youth adviser to Shalala. “Where else could you see programs like 'I slept with my step-dad?' And it's interactive - I talk back to the TV screen.”
A monitoring report cited by Bennett showed that teen sex was the subject of as many as 21 episodes of talk TV in 20-days last February. The “Jenny Jones Show” made national news in March when a young man who had appeared on her show about “secret admirers” stormed over to the home of another man and shot him to death. The young man apparently had become upset when the second man, on camera during the same show, had confessed to having a crush on him.
The “Talk Show Summit” drew representatives from 13 of the top shows, including on-air hosts Jerry Springer, Gordon Elliott, Charles Perez and Mark Walberg. (Oprah Winfrey was among those not represented.) The summit was organized by Population Communications International, a New York-based advocacy group that advises entertainment media officials in Third World countries on sex education, birth control and related issues. The gathering's purpose, says PCI Honorary Chairman Sonny Fox, a longtime television personality, was to get “talk-show people . . . thinking about health and sexuality issues in a different way, and to see how they impact on them.”
A similar summit held a year before with soap opera producers was considered a success: Several shows actually changed their story lines to show more responsible portrayals of sex, Fox says. “I'm not there as a TV pro telling them what's wrong or how to do it better. I'm saying there are issues we face as a country.”
The soap summit, of course, didn't halt the use of sex in stories, Fox adds, because that's part of the way the shows nab audiences. “But we tried to get them to think of some of the ramifications so that they walk away feeling challenged, more concerned and creative.”
Springer, whose show has featured lesbians kissing and a husband introducing his new mistress to his surprised wife, says: “If anyone learns from my show, it's an accident. It's a game show. It's silly entertainment.” What's more, he adds, “I've done 900 shows, and whenever a moral issue is raised, the kids all come out on the right side. Not once have the kids cheered a racist, a child molester or a husband who cheats on his wife.”
Some talk shows have recently taken precautions in response to criticism. Raphael, for example, says she pays for counseling for the guests who seem to need it. “I stick it in the budget under curtains for the new set, or transportation,” she says.
Other shows have begun requiring guests to sign statements warning them that they can be sued for production costs and damages should they tell lies or make up stories on the show.
As for the charge that the shows provide a showcase for deviant behavior, “the key is to present a balance,” says J. Darlene Hayes, a veteran of the Donahue, Montel and Geraldo shows who is now executive producer of “Gabrielle.” “If we do a show on 'My Dad's out of the closet,' we're not necessarily approving of it. The point is, some people's fathers are gay. So we might have a daughter who says it destroyed her life, but we'll have another who says she was upset at first, but learned to love him.”
Hayes also notes that “none of the new shows have been a success compared with Oprah, Phil, Sally or Geraldo. So the new freshmen who at first would do crazy ideas have now stepped back and said, why not do a show we really want to do regardless of the ratings?”
Several observers noted that Oprah, after criticism for shows on such topics as people who make love on top of the washing machine during the spin cycle, has switched to the high road. And this October, Jenny Jones won an award for sexually responsible broadcasting from Los Angeles-based Advocates for Youth, citing her show on “People Who Contacted HIV as Teens.”
Claire Brindis, a PCI associate who teaches adolescent health at the University of California at San Francisco, reported progress in getting the talk shows to devote more time to the resolution of issues. “They have a 50-minute opportunity that is better than a 30- second public service announcement,” she says. Many producers insist on a dichotomy between shows that deal with themes and shows that deal with relationships, she adds. “I say integrate the two. Have 'I slept with my girlfriend's boyfriend,' and then deal with AIDS prevention together.”
Brindis says she talked to the producers “about how to use experts effectively. The producers are concerned that they turn off viewers when they bring on an expert during the fifth segment. I told them, 'Don't put me on TV, I have no ego. Don't put on the old fogies, which is the image of the expert. But take the stealth approach. Call me first. I would rather have influence on the Oprahs and Geraldos of the world' ” but remain behind the scenes.
At the end of the two-day event, participants felt upbeat. “It was a mutual learning experience,” said Fox. The television people were able to reflect on consequences rather than just the script and the next show, and “our experts learned a lot about the realities of putting on a show, about sweeps week, the constraints the producers are under, how difficult it is to get where we want to be,” he says.
Shalala's speech - and her suggestion that talk shows broadcast phone numbers where viewers can get help - appeared well-received. “You hit a lot of nails on the head,” Perez told her. “You've helped show us how we can teach kids the consequences of their behavior without hitting them over the head.”