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Television Talk

Television Talk
A History of the TV Talk Show
With "A Guide to Television Talk" by Robert J. Erler; foreword by Horace Newcomb

A comprehensive history of the first fifty years of television talk, replete with memorable moments from a wide range of classic talk shows, as well as many of today's most popular programs.

Series: Texas Film and Media Studies

August 2002
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416 pages | 6 x 9 | 62 b&w photos |

Flip through the channels at any hour of the day or night, and a television talk show is almost certainly on. Whether it offers late-night entertainment with David Letterman, share-your-pain empathy with Oprah Winfrey, trash talk with Jerry Springer, or intellectual give-and-take with Bill Moyers, the talk show is one of television's most popular and enduring formats, with a history as old as the medium itself.

Bernard Timberg here offers a comprehensive history of the first fifty years of television talk, replete with memorable moments from a wide range of classic talk shows, as well as many of today's most popular programs. Dividing the history into five eras, he shows how the evolution of the television talk show is connected to both broad patterns in American culture and the economic, regulatory, technological, and social history of the broadcasting industry. Robert Erler's "A Guide to Television Talk" complements the text with an extensive "who's who" listing of important people and programs in the history of television talk.


A Choice Outstanding Academic BookOutstanding Academic TitlesChoice Magazine

  • Introduction by Horace Newcomb
  • 1. History of Television Talk: Defining a Genre
    • Introduction
    • Unspoken Rules
    • History
    • Three Major Subgenres
    • Cycles
    • Star Hosts
    • Talk Worlds
  • 2. The First Cycle (1948-1962): Experimentation, Consolidation, and Network Control—CBS
    • Introduction to the First Cycle
    • Founders at CBS: Murrow and Godfrey
      • Close-up: "The Case of Milo Radulovich," See It Now, October 20, 1953
  • 3. The First Cycle: Experimentation, Consolidation, and Network Control—NBC and DuMont
    • Sylvester "Pat" Weaver: NBC's Executive Visionary of Television Talk (1949-1955)
    • Dave Garroway (1952-1961)
    • Arlene Francis and Home (1954-1957)
      • Close-up: Arlene Francis' Last Home Show, August 9, 1957, NBC
    • Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Tonight! Founding Traditions of Late-Night Entertainment Talk (1954-1962)
      • Close-up: Jack Paar's Walk Off the Set of The Tonight Show, February 1960
    • Mike Wallace: The Grand Inquisitor of Television Talk (1956-1958)
    • Conclusion
  • 4. The Second Cycle (1962-1974): Network Consolidation and New Challenges
    • Introduction
    • Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show (1962-1967)
    • Mike Wallace: "The Grand Inquisitor" Returns (1962-1967)
    • Barbara Walters: The "Tender Trap" (1962-1967)
    • Challenges to Network Domination (1969-1974)
    • Phil Donahue (1967-1974)
  • 5. Competitive Ferment in the Late Second Cycle: The Late-Night Talk-Show Wars (1967-1974)
    • Introduction
    • The Challengers: Bishop, Frost, Griffin, and Cavett
      • Close-up: Norman Mailer vs. Gore Vidal on The Dick Cavett Show, ABC, December 1, 1971
    • Johnny Carson (1967-1974)
    • Conclusion
  • 6. The Third Cycle (1974-1980): Transitions
    • 1974: A Year of Change
    • Watergate as National Talk Event
    • New Voices in Syndication: Phil Donahue and Mike Douglas
    • An Independent Voice: Bill Moyers
    • The Voices of Women: Barbara Walters and Dinah Shore
    • Battling from Within: Johnny Carson and NBC (1974-1980)
      • Close-up: Johnny Carson's Tonight: "The Execution Game," A Censored Monologue Routine, January 18, 1977, NBC
    • Conclusion: The End of the Network Era
  • 7. The Fourth Cycle (1980-1990): The Post-Network Era
    • Introduction
    • David Letterman and the Reinvention of the Late-Night Talk Show
      • Close-up: Late Night with David Letterman
    • "America Held Hostage": The Genesis of ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel
      • Close-up: News Talk, Entertainment Talk, and the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor Disaster of 1986
    • New Hosts, New Audiences
    • Joan Rivers and the Late-Night Talk-Show Wars of 1986-1987
    • Oprah Winfrey
    • Geraldo Rivera
    • Arsenio Hall
    • New Consciousness of the Power of TV Talk
  • 8. The Fifth Cycle (1990-1995): News as Entertainment
    • Introduction
    • Leno, Letterman, and the Late-Night Talk-Show Wars (1990-1995)
    • News Talk as Entertainment and Politics: McLaughlin and King (1992-1995)
    • The O. J. Simpson Verdict as a National Talk Event (1995)
  • 9. The Fifth Cycle (1996-2000): Trash Talk, Nice Talk, and Blended Talk
    • Ricki Lake and the National "Trash Talk" Debate
    • When Words Break Down: Jerry Springer (1991-)
    • Rosie O'Donnell's "Nice Talk" (1996-)
    • New Blends
    • Bill Maher and Politically Incorrect
    • Garry Shandling and The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)
    • Conclusion
  • 10. Conclusion
  • Appendix
  • A Taxonomy of Television Talk by Robert J. Erler and Bernard M. Timberg
  • A Guide to Television Talk by Robert J. Erler
  • Notes
  • Sources
  • Index

Bernard Timberg is Director, Pictures of the Mind, and Adjunct Research Associate Professor at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, Virginia Tech University.


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The TV talk show is a creation of twentieth-century broadcasting. It is intensely topical and, like the daily newspaper, has traditionally been considered a disposable form. When one of the founders of the television talk show, Jack Paar, mentioned to his director Hal Gurnee in the early 1960s that he was going to throw away the taped masters from the first years of his show, Gurnee responded, "You're not going to throw away the hubs, are you?" The aluminum hubs of the two-inch video masters were worth $90 at the time. The first ten years of Johnny Carson's Tonight show were similarly erased by NBC without any thought of future value.


Until quite recently, the same dismissive attitude toward the television talk show has permeated media scholarship and TV criticism, which traditionally focused on news and drama. However, beginning in the early 1990s new books on the TV talk show began to appear each year. Critical attention and scholarly interest were also reflected in numerous articles, many focusing on the influence of talk shows on American politics. Critics argued that talk-show hosts were usurping traditional functions of journalism.


In the early 1990s, interest in talk shows was also fueled by the talk-show strategies of candidates in national political campaigns. Ross Perot's third-party candidacy in 1992 emerged out of a talk-show appearance on Larry King Live, and Bill Clinton was dubbed the first "talk-show President" with appearances on Donahue, The Arsenio Hall Show, and MTV. In every national election since that time, talk shows have increasingly become sites where news, entertainment, and political power converge.


The new awareness of the social impact of TV talk was reflected in a national debate that broke out over "tabloid" talk shows of hosts like Ricki Lake, Jenny Jones, and Jerry Springer. The topic received widespread attention in the media when a mid-1990s coalition led by former Secretary of Education William Bennett announced a national boycott against sponsors of TV "trash talk" and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala attended a "talk summit" with hosts, producers, and programming executives to urge them to moderate the excesses of their shows.


Suddenly, it seemed, everyone was talking about talk. How were scholars and critics to make sense of all this talk on the air and the debates swirling around it? Where did these multiplying electronic forms of talk come from, and what were their implications for public discourse? This book is designed to address some of these questions through a decade-by-decade history of the television talk show that traces the talk show's evolution and highlights the work of its most influential hosts.


The history of the TV talk show is marked by a series of distinct cycles, each with a beginning, middle, and end. These cycles are related to broad cultural and economic developments and changes within the broadcasting industry. Each of these cycles fosters certain kinds of talk and certain kinds of hosts. New forms of talk begin to thrive. By the end of each cycle, these kinds of talk have been accepted by viewers, but have often become subsidiary or have begun to fade in their appeal as new kinds of talk emerge within the next cycle.


The range of talk, however, has always been very wide. Talk shows have run the gamut from the polished trans-Atlantic conversations of Edward R. Murrow and Bill Moyers to the verbal mudslinging and parodies that characterized the tabloid talk shows of the 1990s. What has discouraged scholars and critics from treating the TV talk show as a genre has been the difficulty of developing a coherent picture of forms that vary so much from one another and at the same time are so close to normal conversation. However, as I hope to show in this book, the conversations we see on television are anything but normal. However spontaneous they seem, these conversations are always highly planned and structured within the limits of talk-show format and practice. Looking at the TV talk show as a rule-governed form of expression enables us to come up with a definition that embraces all TV talk shows.


Unspoken Rules


The TV talk show is governed by a set of rules or guiding principles that make it distinct from any other form of TV—soap opera, news, or game shows, for instance—and also from daily conversation. Before examining the rules of the TV talk show, however, it is useful to distinguish television talk, a set of principles that govems all talk on television, from talk shows.


Television talk emerges out of fifty years of television practice and the preceding three decades of radio. It is unscripted yet highly planned and invariably anchored by an announcer, host, or team of hosts. It is based on what sociologist Erving Goffman calls "fresh talk": talk that appears to be spontaneous, no matter how planned or formatted it actually may be.


The range of TV talk is much broader than that of "talk shows." TV talk covers every kind of talk on television: cooking shows, book-review shows, station announcements, home shopping channels, Miss America pageants, live political investigations like the Watergate and Iran-Contra hearings. It covers such a wide territory that I have not attempted to cover it in the narrative section of this book. However, the full range of TV talk is covered in the final Guide to Television Talk by Robert Erler. The television talk show, as opposed to television talk, is the television show that is entirely structured around the act of conversation itself.


The first principle of the television talk show is that it is anchored by a host (or team of hosts) who is responsible for the tone and direction, and for guiding and setting limits on the talk that is elicited from guests on the air. In most successful national television talk shows, the host has rarely been simply the "star" of the program. Major talk-show hosts have traditionally attained a high degree of control over their shows and the production teams that run them. From a production standpoint, the host frequently acts as managing editor. From a marketing standpoint, the host is the label, the trademark, that sells the product. From the organizational standpoint, the host's personal power as entrepreneur is pivotal. The host deals with advertisers, network executives, and syndicators. The host is the one irreplaceable part. With a new "brandname" host, the show may continue, as The Tonight Show continued with Johnny Carson replacing Jack Paar in 1962, and with Jay Leno replacing Johnny Carson in 1992, but the show will inevitably change with each new host. Network executives have been acutely aware of this since the days of Arthur Godfrey, Dave Garroway, and Edward R. Murrow.


The second principle of the television talk show is that it is experienced in the present tense as "conversation." Live, taped, or shown in reruns, talk shows always maintain the illusion of the present tense. For talk-show reruns, this requires a "willing suspension of disbelief." For example, twenty-six years after it aired, a 1971 Dick Cavett show in which Norman Mailer confronted Gore Vidal live on the air was played to an audience at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. As members of the audience watched the show, they picked up levels of subtext in Mailer's homophobic taunts of Vidal and were alternately amazed and appalled, vocally supporting Vidal's responses to Mailer's behavior. It was as if the audience were sharing the room once again with the verbal contestants. Viewers relive the present-tense moment even when topical events—news, catastrophes, sports events, talk, or elections—clearly are dated.


A corollary to the talk show's daily present-tense immediacy is its present-tense intimacy. The host speaks to millions as if to each alone. Host and audience share a moment in time, but they share more than that. The intimacy of the moment is tied to the history and continuity of the host's relationship with the audience. On his last Tonight show in 1992, after thirty years on the air, Johnny Carson referred frequently to his long history with his audience. Several times his voice choked with emotion as he spoke. This indeed was a powerful form of present-tense immediacy for many in the television audience.


A third principle is that television talk is a product—a commodity competing with other broadcast commodities. Johnny Carson joked in the monologue of his final show: "When we started this show, the total population of the earth was 3 billion, 100 million. This summer it is 5 billion, 500 million people, which is a net increase of 2 billion, 400 million people.... A more amazing statistic is that half of those 2 billion, 400 million people will soon have their own late-night talk show." This reference to the proliferation of talk shows suggests that, even at the very end of his career, Johnny Carson's eye was on the competition.


Television talk has proven over time to be a valuable commodity, and talk-show hosts themselves are valuable commodities. Their worth to networks and advertisers is reflected in their salaries. To take a single year in the early 1990s, for example, in 1991 NBC paid Carson approximately $30 million, and according to Forbes magazine's annual survey, Oprah Winfrey was, like Johnny Carson, one of America's wealthiest four hundred people. By 2000, Oprah Winfrey's net worth was estimated at $900 million.


Successful talk-show hosts are also profit centers for their own producing or distributing companies. In 1993, most of the income of Multimedia's Entertainment Division ($63.3 million) came from two talk shows run by well-known hosts: Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphaël. In 1994 Oprah Winfrey made about half the profits of her syndicator, King World, with $I80 million in revenue at that time. When Oprah Winfrey's contract was up for negotiation with King World, it was estimated that the loss of her program might drop King World's stock 30 percent in one day.


A commodity as valuable as a talk show hosted by a major star must be carefully managed. It must fit the commercial imperatives and time limits of syndicators, packagers, and network programmers. Though it can be entertaining, even outrageous, it must never seriously alienate advertisers or viewers. For this reason television talk is always regulated by invisible rules of acceptability. Guests are carefully chosen and questions prescreened. When comedian Richard Pryor appeared on the Letterman show in 1986, as much as 80 percent of the interview was set up in advance, which was standard procedure.


A fourth principle is that the give-and-take on a talk show, while it must appear to be spontaneous, must also be highly structured. Scores of invisible hands shape each show. One good example is Carson's final show, which listed a production staff of fifty-five, including writers, producers, set designers, graphics coordinators, makeup artists, hairdressers, wardrobe specialists, propmasters, and other technicians. This represented only the employees of Carson Productions, not the NBC camera crews and technicians in Burbank. Nor did the credits include scores of network officials who oversaw, budgeted, did legal work, and publicized the show. More than a hundred talk-show professionals put a show like Tonight on the air every day.


Although hosts and shows change over time, the core principles remain the same. For fifty years, the television talk show has been host-centered and defined, forged in the present tense, spontaneous but highly structured, churned out within the strict formulas and timed segments of costly network time, and designed to air topics appealing to the widest possible audience. Whoever the host and whatever the form, these are the defining characteristics of the TV talk show.




Perhaps we tend not to see the talk show as a genre because, so far, no comprehensive history has defined its evolution and illustrated the variations within its common structures. Many of the best examples of early talk-show hosts and formats are gone, or available only in archives or from the hands of private collectors.


This situation is changing. Yesterday's trash becomes today's history. Old talk shows are now running on cable channels. Through Peabody and Emmy awards, books, articles, and more recent scholarly attention, the television talk show has begun to receive recognition for its role in helping to define American life over five decades. Influential talk-show hosts are beginning to receive serious attention. Hosts are now being defined as entrepreneurs as well as entertainers, owners and managing editors as well as catalysts within the TV industry. Ultimately, certain talk-show figures have become acknowledged titans of talk and shapers of American culture.


This history of the television talk show will define the genre as it emerged from radio and other precedents in American popular culture. It will show how influential hosts shaped talk-show forms and were themselves influenced by previous talk traditions, by sponsors and network officials, and by the writers, producers, and directors with whom they worked. It will describe the larger forces that shape the TV talk show, including the economics that dictate the terms of the hosts' relationships with their audiences.


A history of the television talk show, then, has multiple purposes. It provides an overview of talk shows' unspoken rules, forms, formats, and landmark figures, tracing the intricate web of forces, people, and technology that put a talk show on the air. It leads to historically informed definitions of the major subgenres of the TV talk show seen on television today.


Three Major Subgenres


Three major subgenres of television talk developed specific identities over time: the late-night entertainment talk show (modeled on The Tonight Show of Steve Allen and Jack Paar, 1954-1961), the daytime audience-participation talk show (modeled on The Phil Donahue Show, 1967-1995), and the morning magazine-format show (modeled on the first Today show of Dave Garroway, 1952-1959). Because of their prominence, these subgenres have influenced many other forms of talk on television and are the focus of this book.


The Late-Night Entertainment Talk Show


This is the subgenre that many people picture when they think of talk shows—a celebrity host chatting with one guest, possibly with other guests seated nearby. The celebrity chat show takes on different characteristics depending upon the time of day it is broadcast. The late-night version is based on congenial, playful encounters between guests and the host, who is more often than not a singer or comedian. The latenight entertainment talk/variety show became dominant on network television in the 1950s with Broadway Open House and The Tonight Show, and in the 1960s Tonight became the flagship late-night talk program of NBC. The audience for late night increased during the late 1960s and early 1970s with the publicity of the first late-night talkshow wars between Tonight host Johnny Carson and his competitors. David Letterman brought a new sensibility to the subgenre with his program following Carson's on NBC in the late-night program schedule of the 1980s. Drawing on the earlier comedy talk traditions of Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen, Letterman's form of late-night entertainment talk, which played with the talk show as a form, became increasingly mainstream through the 1980s. Later, Jay Leno and others integrated Letterman's innovations into the more traditional elements of Carson's format. With many contenders entering and leaving late-night talk, but only a few holding steady, the late-night entertainment talk show grew steadily in popularity among viewers throughout its first five decades on the air.


The Daytime Audience-Participation Show


This format, founded by Phil Donahue in 1967 in Dayton, Ohio, and based on Donahue's earlier hot-topic radio call-in show (Conversation Piece, 1963-1967), made the studio audience a full participant by putting the audience in direct dialogue with guest experts or celebrities. Donahue's young production team was willing to try new approaches to reach a largely female audience at home during the day. Donahue pioneered the role of the host as a peripatetic mediator who stirs a live studio audience to question and speak up to celebrities and experts. Donahue's commercial success in national syndication in the 1970s and 1980s spawned many imitators. His competition with Oprah Winfrey in the mid-and late 1980s brought new viewers, publicity, and attention to the form. By the late rg80s and early 1990s, however, the intermittent public-service orientation of daytime talk shows like Donahue's was supplanted by the purely entertainment-oriented commercial values of tabloid shows like Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer, and other forms of "reality-based" talk programming.


The Early-Morning News Talk Magazine Show


Whether presenting news or entertainment, every television talk show that rose to prominence in the first decades of television was influenced by the time of day it was offered and the audience it appealed to at that time of day (what programmers call "the day part"). The morning show provides a good example of the trial-and-error method by which talk subgenres emerged in their respective time periods.


By the late 1940s, radio had a wide variety of talk formats in the morning, but television was just beginning to experiment with early morning viewers. Television still reached a limited number of households, and there was not much programming of any kind on television in the morning in 1947-1948. In 1948, however, NBC scheduled a popular morning radio talk couple, Tex and Jinx, at 1 P.M., then the earliest hour on the TV schedule. By fall 1948 the fourth TV network, DuMont, began to experiment with a series of variety and informational shows that aired before noon. CBS began its first morning TV programming with Two Sleepy People, starring Mike Wallace and Buff Cobb. These experiments in early-morning programming took lasting form in January 1952 with the creation of The Today Show with host Dave Garroway, under programming chief Pat Weaver's direction, on NBC. Arthur Godfrey's daytime program, Arthur Godfrey Tirne, began on CBS the same week, with both hosts going on to become founders of television talk and creating major profit centers for their networks.


By the end of the 1950s, most of network television's major subgenres were in place, though occasionally new formats emerged out of syndication (The Phil Donahue Show, 1967), cable (Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, 1993), or independent network competition (Fox Broadcasting's Fox in the Morning, 1996-1997, which attempted to update the early-morning talk magazine for an MTV audience). New forms of TV talk are rare. Instead, talk subgenres are periodically modified or brought up to date within each cycle of television industry practice.




Before the invention of television, broadcasting began to influence popular speech. Although David Sarnoff, later head of RCA and NBC, was not one of the operators relaying signals from the sinking Titanic, as later legend proclaimed, he saw the effect of the instantaneous transmission of news on the listening and reading public. When radio turned broadcasting into a mass medium in the 1920s and 1930s, advertising agencies, producers, and performers brought diverse forms of radio programming to the air, paving the way for the television talk of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The founders of network talk had extensive experience in radio, and some, like Edward R. Murrow and Arthur Godfrey, maintained careers in both media.


Television added sight to sound. One could now see as well as hear the host and his guests. From 1948 to the present, thousands of talk shows have been produced by hundreds of hosts. The history of the major subgenres of the TV talk show can be broken down into five major periods, or cycles, of development, which correspond roughly to the last five decades of the twentieth century. Within each cycle, a handful of hosts played leading roles both on and off camera. During each cycle, technological, economic, and cultural changes within the television industry affected how emerging subgenres of talk shows were produced.


The first cycle of television talk, from 1948 to 1962, was the era of the founders. Arthur Godfrey, Edward R. Murrow, Dave Garroway, Arlene Francis, Mike Wallace, and Jack Paar all played significant roles in founding major subgenres of TV talk. The decade began with experiments in television programming, sometimes decentralized, and moved rapidly into reliance on a few powerful, independent hosts. This period, from 1948 to 1953, was a time when television-set ownership exploded from 1 percent of the population to 53 percent. By the end of the 1950s, with the saturation of American households by television reaching 90 percent, talk programming was rigorously controlled by bottomline corporate managers. By 1962, the founders of TV talk in the 1950s were all gone, often after being tragically stripped of their former independence and initiative. The excitement of television talk in the early 1950s is illustrated by Edward R. Murrow's narration of the split-screen joining of the New York harbor and San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge on the first See It Now, using the first coast-to-coast coaxial cable for television in 1951. An image that ends the period is Murrow, head in hands, worn out by struggles with the network and unable to execute his weekly radio broadcast. Two other images that capture the end of the era are Jack Paar's famous walk off The Tonight Show after being censored by network officials for a water-closet joke in 1960, and his retirement two years later as he dramatically walked off the stage, followed by his dog and with his talk-show stool in hand.


The second and third cycles of television talk ran from 1962 to 1974 and from 1974 to 1980. These cycles represent the rise of network power and the beginning of its fall. From 1962 to 1970 the three big networks consolidated their power. Network coffers were overflowing. Network decision-makers were firmly in control of programming, intent on making sure that nothing would upset sponsors or advertisers. Network officials had the additional control of videotape, which is how they flagged the Jack Paar water-closet joke, and much "live" dramatic and talk programming was no longer truly live. A small but vigorous syndicated talk industry grew up beside the networks in the period, but only three hosts emerged as stars with staying power in the network structures of the day: Johnny Carson, Barbara Walters, and Mike Wallace. These stars established themselves with programs that were steady profit-makers for their networks and used their network bases to become stars of TV talk for more than three decades.


Johnny Carson's career spanned the rise and fall of network power. In 1963 he was the network's hand-picked successor to Paar. When Carson retired in 1991, the network's falling clout was signified by its dilemma in finding his successor. Jay Leno was contractually bound to NBC, but David Letterman, becoming a free agent from his NBC contract in 1993, was courted by other networks and national syndication companies like King World. He eventually chose CBS, for its tradition and stability, but his choice was by no means a foregone conclusion. The balance of power had shifted away from the networks and toward individual stars and new broadcasting entities in national television.


Some of the shift was already under way in the third cycle of television talk. Though the networks still dominated the industry, they began to receive challenges from new competitors: syndicators, independent station groups, cable, and PBS. Another series of images brings back the competitive ferment of the period: Phil Donahue sneaking back to his former radio station in 1967 to steal back his Rolodex for his new daytime television show; Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, David Frost, and Dick Cavett battling Johnny Carson to dominate late-night TV from 1967 to 1974; Cavett bucking Emmy Award ritual in 1972, when he refused to accept the Emmy to protest the networks' lack of news, documentary, and public-affairs talk programming. Another image from the period is that of Bill Moyers' amazement as he received a flood of letters after his 1973 "Watergate Essay" on Bill Moyers' Journal. He had no idea that a PBS television show could have that much impact.


Of the new competitive forces, syndication turned out to be the most significant. Since the I950s, syndicators had produced television shows inexpensively in their own studios and sold them to independent stations around the country or to network affiliates for off-peak hours. Until 1969, however, the number of new talk shows rarely exceeded five. Twenty new talk shows came on the market in 1969, most of them syndicated. New technologies of production (cheaper television studios and lower production costs), new methods of distribution (satellite transmission), new distribution systems (HBO and cable), and key regulatory decisions by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made nationally syndicated talk shows increasingly profitable and attractive to investors.


The fourth and fifth cycles of television talk, from 1980 to 1990 and 1990 to 2000, took place in the post-network era of TV. Traditional distinctions between news and entertainment began to break down. Hosts, programs, and formats continued to exploit the steady expansion of cable and syndicated talk outlets through the 1990s. Films like Wayne's World appropriated and satirized talk shows, while arguments about the impact of talk shows as forums of social expression raged among politicians, journalists, academics, and talk professionals.


The end of each decade brought ferment in the talk-show industry, but the early 1980s reflected particularly deep changes in the way audiences watched TV. In the 1979 introduction to the television reference book The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows, authors Tim Brook and Earle Marsh confidently remarked that "little had changed" in network television programming since the demise of the fourth network (DuMont) in 1956. Five years later, in the preface to the second edition of Total Television, Alex McNeil noted the remarkable growth of cable television from 1980 to 1984 as a major development in broadcasting. With cable came a steady stream of reality-based programming and infotainment.


The term infotainment was a marketing ploy at the 1980 National Association of Television Programming Executives (NATPE) conference, applying particularly to real-life cop shows. The term encompassed much more, however, in the next two decades as blended forms of information, news, and entertainment became more prominent. With increasing regularity, starting in the early 1980s, five to ten channels suddenly expanded to fifty to a hundred or more for many viewers, and, with the advent of the remote control, audiences no longer had to get up to switch channels. Zipping through programs with the remote control became the normal way of viewing television, and the lines between information and entertainment began to blur in viewing experiences at the same time they were blurring in programming. Infotainment in talk programming encompassed news as entertainment (The McLaughlin Group); carnivalesque relationship shows (Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer); blends of comedy, opinion, and public-affairs discussion (Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect); news parodies (the Dennis Miller Show and Jon Stewart's The Daily Show); blends of dramatically scripted and improvised talk (The Larry Sanders Show); and specialized topics that blended information and entertainment (the Dr. Ruth Westheimer show or MTV's Loveline). These hybrid programs made money, and while some were transitory, others marked a more permanent change on the landscape of television.


By the time Johnny Carson retired in the early 1990s, most talk programming was coming from cable television or syndication. A1though the exact contours of TV talk could not be predicted by the end of the 1990s, the talk show was clearly a vigorous and expanding form. New strategies were being developed for recycling talk shows, and certain major hosts established their own national magazines (Oprah and Rosie). TV talk could now be integrated with websites and other forms of interactive computer communications.


Star Hosts


In an industry in which talk shows are plentiful but the variety of talkshow forms relatively limited, individual hosts have played an enormous role in inventing and refining the talk show's most influential subgenres. Who those star hosts have been, what they have said, and the kinds of ideas they have represented are particularly relevant to a history of TV talk. The person and on-air persona of the talk-show host are closely intertwined. This is why the following chapters trace so closely the careers of individual hosts.


The period from 1980 to 1990 marked breakthroughs in ethnic and racial representation among star hosts of TV talk. Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jessy Raphaël, Arsenio Hall, Montel Williams, and others put new class, ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity on a television screen that was still limited, but certainly now included much more of a range than in the 1950s when canceled African American entertainer Nat King Cole made his famous remark: "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark." Oprah Winfrey led the field of new hosts in the 1980s, grossing over $100 million her first year in national syndication. The networks were looking for new formulas and new audiences and to redefine traditional day parts in the face of the competition. Ted Koppel and David Letterman emerged as major talk-show stars during this period as well.


The show-business biographies, key programs, and business history of each host reveal some of the cultural, technological, and commercial forces that constituted each cycle. These forces first supported the host and program, then shaped them, and eventually were influential in taking them off the air. The profiles also illustrate the cultural role of the national TV talk-show host. Late-night entertainment hosts, most of whom had their training in stand-up comedy, performed balancing acts as comedy monologists, social commentators, and masters of ceremony introducing celebrity and non-celebrity guests. As interviewers they asked questions designed to represent the probing curiosities of the viewer at home. The star hosts of daytime audienceparticipation talk shows performed a different kind of balancing. The big four of daytime talk in the 1980s—Donahue, Winfrey, Rivera, and Raphaël—all had their early training in radio public-affairs broadcasting and journalism. While often playing the role of reporter, they also served as catalyst, mediator, teacher, preacher, counselor, confessor, or ombudsperson in the midst of contesting views and personalities on their shows. Trained in theater techniques, Sally Jessy Raphaël was quoted as saying that her skills, and the skills of other daytime hosts, were the skills of a theater director as well.


In general, late-night and daytime hosts draw on interview techniques that test their abilities to listen and their skills at repartee. They bring the force of their own personalities to the sociability rituals of television talk. As culture critic Michael Arlen has pointed out, the talk-show hosts reinforce, almost obsessively, rules of social decorum that are disappearing from other places in American life.


Star hosts also set social, political, and cultural agendas. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the comedy monologues of Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and Jay Leno were repeatedly cited by news critics and political commentators as barometers of public opinion, helping to define what constituted common sense for many Americans. Serious issues were always just beneath the surface of entertainment, and entertainment values permeated the news. News and entertainment hosts faced the same pressures for audiences and ratings, and complemented one another in their treatment of the day's news topics. The explosion of interest in the O. J. Simpson case as a national media event, from June 1994 through the verdict of the criminal trial in October 1995, was as much a creation of talk shows as news headlines. Twenty years previously, Phil Donahue's airing of issues raised by the women's movement had helped turn what were formerly considered private issues into public ones. In the 1980s, Oprah Winfrey's programs on incest and child abuse, drawing on her own authority as an incest victim, had extended the limits of public discussion around those issues. The agenda-setting potential of television talk shows increased in each decade as the number of TV sets multiplied and television became a more pervasive influence in American life. Frank Mankiewicz, former president of National Public Radio, argues that by the 1980s entertainment and news talk hosts on television had overtaken the voices of the printed press and radio as the most important shapers of public opinion. Mankiewicz cites Johnny Carson and David Letterman as two of the ten most powerful molders of public opinion in the 1980s. "Like Johnny Carson's jokes," Mankiewicz said, HDavid Letterman's famous lists are almost always a form of commentary on the news.... He is making sense of the news just as surely as some thrice-weekly foreign policy expert delivering the latest assessment of glasnost or mediumrange missiles." By the 1990s, Jay Leno had joined the ranks of national comedy news commentators as well.


With this larger view of the role of star hosts in the televised talk worlds of contemporary America, we can begin to think about the talk show in relation to the recorded conversation of earlier eras.


Talk Worlds


A talk world is a point of intersection or site in which a small group talks to itself while simultaneously addressing an invisible but clearly defined collective audience. Talk worlds may be captured by writing, audio recording, film, or television and relayed to their audiences at the distance of centuries, or in an electronic instant. In its most immediate form the talk of television takes place within a small group and within the relatively confined space of a TV studio, but it is simultaneously directed to a mass audience at various locations around the world. Because talk shows address an immediate and public audience at the same time, they are characterized by a dual consciousness. They are a form of rhetoric that is both private and public, personal and mass. To borrow a metaphor from quantum physics, talk shows are wave and particle at the same time.


In one sense, dual consciousness characterizes all talk worlds of private conversations made public. In every age bards, scribes, writers, and amanuenses have reflected this dual consciousness by recording the words of influential speakers and relaying them to widening circles. The difference between earlier recorded talk worlds and the talk shows of today is one of speed, totality, and impact. Modern participants are aware of the intersection of their small circle of talk with the larger cultural one and, with major network television shows, they are aware that millions are listening to the same conversation.


A talk world is completed by its last participant, its last decoder. In the case of written accounts of talk worlds, that decoder may read a written description of spoken words at a distance of centuries and through various filters of translation and narrative framing. The last decoder—the reader or listener—imaginatively re-frames or "hears" the words that are spoken, in the first instance, as if they are being spoken in the present tense. The reader may contextualize the words being read as part of a historical document, a religious teaching, or a piece of literature, but the power of the spoken word reverts to its origins as a spoken act. One of the major principles of TV talk—present-tense immediacy—maps in this sense onto the way ancient, medieval, and modem talk worlds have been relived for centuries.


Of course, earlier talk worlds occupy gray areas between fictional and real. Biblical dialogues, such as the encounter between Moses and God on Sinai, can be understood as purely literary documents, as real on the level of myth (collectively condensed sagas of real people in real historical circumstances), or, as biblical literalists maintain, as the actual words spoken in biblical times.


The highly selected and canonized talk worlds of ancient cultures often made powerful statements. These talk worlds were passed down by bards and scribes. The authorship or recording of these dialogues was often placed under the name of a single interlocutor. For example, The Five Books of Moses are ascribed to Moses, the dialogues of Socrates to Plato, the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita of Hinduism to the poet sage Visa. Taken collectively, these ancient talk worlds show how important certain basic dialogues—private conversations made public—have been to the history of publicized talk.


The eighteenth century marked a turning point in the history of public conversation. Members of the emerging middle class debated the scientific, political, social, and artistic issues of the day in taverns, in coffee houses, at private-home dinner parties, in salons, and within discussion societies of all kinds. Journalists and essayists converted this talk into print, and that, too, was disseminated.


The commodification of talk by a vigorous publishing industry and the rise of a celebrity system accompanying the public talk of the eighteenth century played a decisive part in the rise of modern democracies. Posthumous battles over the words of Samuel Johnson, for example, resulted in dozens of biographies, sketches, and portraits of Johnson's conversations. The commodification of talk in the eighteenth century prefigured the TV talk worlds of today.


While the role of public talk in the eighteenth century has now been recognized by many scholars and writers, the impact of public talk on television today has been harder to see. By the 1990s, however, social critics were beginning to recognize the power of the TV talk show as cultural institution and social text as well as performance event and profitable form of entertainment. Media critics, editorial writers, and scholars began asking questions about how TV talk shows affected public judgments about what was and was not newsworthy. A new round of articles and books appeared concerning the eighteenth-century ideal of common public space and rational debate and what had happened to it. Television's role in defining topics of national interest and identification for Americans, and for an increasing number of viewers worldwide, made television talk, by the end of the 1990s, one of the nation's leading forums for working out national values and ideas.


Modern media critics recognize that the public space of television is subject to enormous corporate influence and that powerful filters are operating all the time. Alternative ideas—direct critiques of the fundamental premises of a capitalist system and consumer society, for example—are marginalized or not discussed at all. Intensifying the trend toward univocal public discussion was the increasing consolidation and concentration of mass media ownership. Talk shows were being produced within larger and larger corporate systems of production and distribution.


By the late 1980s, General Electric had taken over NBC, Cap Cities had become the new corporate owner of ABC, and CBS was bought by Laurence Tisch from previous stockholders and Paley family interests. By the mid-1990s Walt Disney acquired ABC-Cap Cities with the worldwide ESPN network for $18.84 billion, and Time Warner purchased Turner Broadcasting with the worldwide Cable News Network for $6.88 billion. Westinghouse merged with CBS in another $5.04 billion mega-deal. At the end of the decade the CBS merger with Viacom dwarfed these earlier deals, at $37 billion, and soon afterward America Online bought Time Warner for the new record merger price of $166 billion. These acquisitions represented new pressures for immediate returns on capital invested, stepped up the drive for ratings and mass audiences, and favored forms of talk that were profitable and easy to produce.


Still, some social critics have seen rays of promise in all this talk. Although there are limits to what can be said and done in all commercial television formats, new constituencies were able to appear on shows like Donakne and Oprah and speak directly for themselves and their groups without experts or professional broadcasters re-framing their words. Sometimes these citizens challenged the experts. Political candidates spoke more directly to hosts and audiences on talk shows as opposed to the more rigidly controlled formats of traditional press conferences or press panels. Though new levels of spin have developed on the talk-show circuit as handlers guide their candidates through the maze of talk forums, critics and audiences have become more knowledgeable about these rhetorical strategies. Talk shows can sometimes put the spotlight on social issues, catching candidates off guard or taking them away from their positions and highly rehearsed campaign images.


Historically, TV talk has occasionally weighed in on important national issues. The shows of hosts like Edward R. Murrow, Phil Donahue, and Oprah Winfrey have on occasion raised important social and political issues for debate. For example, Murrow's 1954 confrontation with Senator Joseph R. McCarthy represented a turning point in national politics. Similarly, public debate on television, along with direct views of warfare and casualties on TV news, contributed to the serious questions that were being raised about the war in Vietnam.


How television talk functions as an "ideology machine" can only be understood by a close examination of its texts. By the time of the O. J. Simpson verdict in October 1995, for example, it was clear that network decision-makers, producers, and talk-show hosts were conceiving of the television talk show as one of the last truly national centers of public opinion in a market-segmented public sphere. Major news commentators got it wrong at the time of the verdict, though it seemed to faze them only momentarily. For it was clear at the time of the verdict that the white population and the African American population did not see the trial the same way. The man-and-woman-in-the-street interview, the discussions with legal and forensic experts, constitutional scholars, and political analysts, and the joke factory of TV talk comedians attempted to simulate the old town meeting on a national scale, but television talk often provided more spectacle than analysis. Its main goal, it appeared, was to create a consensus narrative that would allow all viewers to feel comfortable with the verdict when it was rendered. That proved impossible.


Viewers saw powerful consensus narratives during other national and intemational media events: the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991, for example, or the flood of news and talk commentary that accompanied the announcement of the "War on Terrorism" after the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001. The appearance of veteran news anchor Dan Rather on The David Letterman Show the week after the attack, when Letterman dropped his characteristic irony and reserve and Rather cried on the air, represented a moment when TV news talk and TV entertainment talk fused.


With all its limitations, dangers, potentials, and pitfalls, the TV talk show is now part of the fabric of modem society. Talk shows represent skewed but instantly recognizable constructions of American experience. Their political and cultural importance can no longer be discounted. An understanding of the TV talk show is now crucial to an understanding of American public life itself.




“Bernard Timberg’s work on talk shows reminds us all of how intimately we have been connected to this delightfully complicated form of television. It is difficult to imagine America in the twenty-first century without the talk show, and now it is difficult to imagine the talk show without Timberg’s rich historical perspective.”
Horace Newcomb, editor of Encyclopedia of Television


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