Tabloid talk show

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A tabloid talk show is a subgenre of the talk show genre. The subgenre achieved peak viewership during the late 20th century.[1][2] Airing mostly during the day and distributed mostly through broadcast 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 the personal confession-filled The Oprah Winfrey Show, which debuted nationally in 1986.[3][4] 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".[5] 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 members, anti-racist skinheads, and Jewish activists led to an on-camera brawl) and The Jerry Springer Show, which focused on lurid trysts – often between family members.[6] While sociologist Vicki Abt criticized tabloid TV shows, claiming that they have blurred the lines between normal and deviant behavior, Yale sociology professor Joshua Gamson argues that the genre's focus on sexual orientation provided a great deal of media visibility for LGBT people.[7] 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.[1][8]


The Les Crane Show, a network talk show that aired during late-night on ABC 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 show. 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.[9]

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 quickly doubled Donahue's audience, as her personal confessions and focus on therapy were seen by many as redefining the format.

Time magazine wrote, "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 Magazine credits 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 that show's studio audience.

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, the former news anchor and talk show host Gayle King, said during an A&E profile on Winfrey in 2003 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 Oprah[edit]

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 show debuts: The Jerry Springer Show, 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 Raphael 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 Gannett, who in turn sold the talk show assets to what would eventually become modern NBCUniversal. 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 UK through his association with Pearson plc.

Trash TV[edit]

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.[10][11][12][13] One of the earliest of the post-Oprah shows was Geraldo, which was oriented toward controversial guests and theatricality. One of the early shows was titled "Men in Lace Panties and the Women Who Love Them". Host Geraldo Rivera broke his nose in a well-publicized brawl during a 1988 show, involving racist skinheads, anti-racist skinheads, and black and Jewish activists.[14] This incident led to Newsweek's characterization of his show as "Trash TV". The term Trash TV was applied to tabloid talk shows at their most extreme; some hosts, such as Jerry Springer, have proudly accepted the label, while others like 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 catch phrase "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 lead to it becoming one of the most successful television talk shows 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 special reports in prime time 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: he 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.[15] 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 post-op transexuals, paternity tests, numerous features on the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups, and an expose 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.


On an episode of The Jenny Jones Show called "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 received 25 to 50 years in prison.

Amedure's family then sued 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 didn't 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 saying the show's producers were not responsible for guests' safety after they had left the studio. Ratings for the Jenny Jones show declined in the years after the case and it was 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.

Decline and resurgence[edit]

By the early 2000s (decade), the genre began to decline in popularity with viewing audiences, and certain hosts either saw their shows cancelled due to low ratings (e.g. Jenny Jones and Sally Jessy Raphaël), died (e.g. 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 an increased number of women in the workforce (resulting in a corresponding decline in potential viewers for daytime TV, 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.[16] 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 TV shows and many court shows featured conflicts and raunchy material that would be normally seen in a tabloid talk show. 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 more serious subject matters or staying on stage like more traditional talk shows. Another example of this trend was Geraldo Rivera ending his show in 1998 to focus on his CNBC News program full-time. New talk shows also followed the trend of emphasizing less bawdy themes; The Ananda Lewis Show (2001–02) 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 when 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 being panned 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 (decade). The TV series 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 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. Tyra's format was more contemporary like Oprah and Dr. Phil, but has 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 (decade) and early 2010s, although with a greater emphasis on self-help than their predecessors (owing to the popularity of shows such as Dr. Phil). The Steve Wilkos Show debuted in 2007. The once-defunct Tribune Entertainment commissioned new pilots for tabloid-style talk shows hosted by radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge and conservative talk radio host Bill Cunningham, for possible debut in fall 2011; while Bubba's show was not picked up, The Bill Cunningham Show began production in fall 2011.[17] An American version of the British tabloid talk show The Jeremy Kyle Show also launched in fall 2011. Ricki Lake and The Queen Latifah Show were both slated to return in 2012, but with revamped, more mature formats to reflect the hosts' increased age; also set to debut was show hosted by Trisha Goddard, who hosted a tabloid show in the UK for several years. Lake's new show lasted only a year, and Queen Latifah's was delayed until 2013.


In the scholarly text Freaks Talk Back,[18] Yale 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 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."[19]

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 gay suicide rates plummeting. Gamson also believes that tabloid talk shows caused gays 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 Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain.

While having changed with the times from her tabloid talk show roots, Winfrey continues 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 tsunami on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey's "therapeutic" hosting style and the tabloid talk show genre has been 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" which means 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. TV 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."[20] Talk shows were often spoofed in mainstream media, with Night Stand with Dick Dietrick one of the full length spoofs of the medium (complete with fake guests and audience members asking questions).

Oprah talks to Phil Donahue[edit]

For 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. "If there had been no Phil Donahue show, there would be no Oprah Winfrey show," she wrote in the article's introduction. "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 hate Donahue because for the first time women were challenging their physicians.

Donahue 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."

In Europe[edit]

Annita Pania is the longest living representative of Trash TV in Greece, which reached its peak during the mid-1990s.

In the United Kingdom[edit]

American trash TV is widely viewed in the United Kingdom.[21] The UK also produces its own trash TV shows, which are largely similar to their American counterparts, albeit more tame. Most hosts get involved more with 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, is known for his confrontational attitude towards those on the programme, while others like Trisha Goddard are more pacifist. Springer himself did a series on ITV as The Jerry Springer Show. Vanessa Feltz's programme The Vanessa Show was cancelled by the BBC as a result of some participants being actors from an agency, although it was known previously for outlandish stories similar to the American shows.[22]

Examples of shows[edit]

Past shows
Current shows

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Grimes, William (December 10, 1995). "Word for Word/Television Sociology;The Deconstruction of Jenny And Jerry, Maury and Montel". New York Times. 
  2. ^ "Trash TV: Insightful and in touch with America". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 2010-10-30. 
  3. ^ "Coming After Oprah". Retrieved 2012-11-19. 
  4. ^ McFedries, Paul (2002-01-21). "Oprahization". Word Spy. Retrieved 2012-11-19. 
  5. ^ Hundley, Wendy (January 5, 1995). "Baring All on a Talk Show Is No Way To Solve Problems". Chicago Tribune. 
  6. ^ "Truth Behind Jerry Springer | Jerry Springer Awful Truths Shocking fact from the "Springer" set: Some people love flying chairs. Some people love Jerry. And trash TV wouldn't exist without you. - Page 4 - Baltimore Sun". 1998-05-24. Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  7. ^ "Freaks Talk Back". Retrieved 2012-11-19. 
  8. ^ Kolbert, Elizabeth (June 11, 1995). "TELEVISION; Wages of Deceit: Untrue Confessions". New York Times. 
  9. ^ "Inside the Depths of Talk TV". Los Angeles Times. October 6, 1996. 
  10. ^ Carter, Bill (March 14, 1995). "Killing Poses Hard Questions About Talk TV". New York Times. 
  11. ^ Braxton, Greg (April 5, 1998). "Them's Fightin' Words". Los Angeles Times. 
  12. ^ Hohenadel, Kristin (October 31, 1999). "The Talk of the Town?". Los Angeles Times. 
  13. ^ Bellafante, Ginia (1996-06-24). "Television: A League Of Her Own". TIME. Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  14. ^ "24 × 7". Retrieved 2012-11-19. 
  15. ^ Mifflin, Lawrie (1995-10-28). "Aim Higher, Forum Urges Talk Shows". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-12-06. 
  16. ^ Mifflin, Lawrie (December 20, 1995). "Falling Ratings Threaten All Except Top Talk Shows". New York Times. 
  17. ^ "Tribune looking to get back into syndication". TPR. 3 June 2010. Retrieved 9 July 2010. 
  18. ^ "Joshua Gamson, Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity, excerpt and interview". Retrieved 2012-11-19. 
  19. ^ "Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity: Joshua Gamson: 9780226280653: Books". Retrieved 2012-11-19. 
  20. ^ " – Transcripts". 2006-01-29. Retrieved 2012-11-19. 
  21. ^ "TELEVISION; Stiff Upper Lips on British Talk Shows (Lower, Too)". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-11-20. 
  22. ^ McCann, Paul (1999-06-10). "'Vanessa Show' is axed by BBC". The Independent (London). 
  23. ^ "Exclusive: MGM to Launch 'Paternity Court' This Fall – 2012-12-12 22:52:29 | Broadcasting & Cable". Retrieved 2012-12-16. 

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