GENRE DECONSTRUCTION. TALK SHOW MANIA. Genre Formula. Length: one hour Setting: interior studio, desk, couch, chair, roving host, live audience, panelists Characters:
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The Joe Franklin Show (lasted 43 years)Meet the Press*You Can Do It TooThe Mike Wallace Interview*Arthur Godfrey TimePerson to PersonThe Shirley Graham ShowThe Gary Moore ShowMeet Betty FurnessTonight (Steve Allen)Broadway Open House*The Talk of the TownGood Morning America*
The technology for television had been around since the 20’s. But it was the end of the war and the return to production that ushered in the TV. The arrival of television meant that programs had to be found to broadcast. Radio had been the medium of the day, but few radio shows could transfer to television because they required too much in terms of sets, costumes, and money. In order to fill the air time, producers looked for a new genre. Talk shows supplied the answer for a number of reasons. They were cheap to produce because there were no actors, scenery, or special effects required. They were immensely profitable for producers and the audience appeal was very large. Thus, television talk shows were born.
Television talk shows consist of many sub-genres. Three popular sub-genres of television talk shows are the early morning talk shows which generally focus on news and politics, the afternoon talk shows which concentrate on personal issues and sensationalism, and the late night talk shows which highlight celebrities and light conversation. Each of these talk show styles have their own codes and conventions. The television programs have changed with time and been a reflection of the times.
Meet the Press, which began as a radio show in 1945 and premiered on television in 1947, was one of the first television talk shows. The host was Mike Wallace. His show was serious talk. He invited prominent guests and celebrities to be on his show including such public figures as Joseph McCarthy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fidel Castro, and Martin Luther King, Jr. His show used the panel discussion format with Mr. Wallace as the moderator.
News was made and discussed on the program. Mr. Wallace conducted the interviews and controlled the flow of the show. The set was a newsroom. The content was serious, thus aiming at an intelligent and often influential target audience of professionals, politicians, and law makers. Meet the Press and shows similar in nature aired on television on Sunday evening.
During the 50’s, The Mike Wallace Interview was a popular talk show. Wallace began to research lives of guests and to ask interesting questions. He gained a reputation for the "ambush interview", taking many of his guests by surprise and creating a level of emotion in his interviews (a technique most common to current talk shows). The Mike Wallace Interview became 60 minutes during the 60’s.
The Today show became and still is a popular early-morning talk show program. It is the longest running daytime series and one of the most profitable shows in the history of television. The first host was Dave Garroway. This was the first show to use a non-human cast member, a chimpanzee, J. Fred Muggs in 1953.
It was also the first show to feature a different young woman each day who became known as the "Today Girl". "Today Girls" of the fifties included women such as Estelle Parsons, Lee Meriwether, Helen O'Connell, Betsy Palmer, and Florence Henderson. At first the women were little more that beauty objects; however, their role expanded and in 1974 the "Today Girl" became an actual co-host on the show.
An interesting show during the 50’s was Queen for a Day. This show paved the way to daytime talk. The show featured guests who revealed how unhappy they were or how miserable their lives were. These quests were not famous people, just ordinary folks. Each day a winner was declared through audience applause. This "parade of misery" is a current element of daytime talk shows.
One of the earliest late night talk shows premiered in 1950 and was called Broadway Open House featuring stand-up comedians, Jerry Lester and Morey Amsterdam. The format was a combination of talk and a variety program resembling vaudeville with singing, dancing, and jokes.
It is interesting to note that talk shows began as daytime talk and catered to a primarily female audience; however, in 1954, Tonight with Steve Allen premiered as a late night comedy talk show. Thus the target audience was broadened to include males. The classic talk show format we recognize today started on Allen's show including an opening monologue, announcer/side-kick, musical content, and comedy. This show was part talk, part comedy; a new format. Allen was as much an entertainer as a host. He was a musician, composer, author, comedian, and actor. Allen interviewed guests in a variety of ways, including skits. During the late 50’s, Allen was given a prime time variety show Sunday nights. Producers needed to find a new host. Jack Paar accepted the position and The Tonight Show became an institution.
This show was part talk, part comedy; a new format. Allen was as much an entertainer as a host. He was a musician, composer, author, comedian, and actor. Allen interviewed guests in a variety of ways, including skits. During the late 50’s, Allen was given a prime time variety show Sunday nights. Producers needed to find a new host. Jack Paar accepted the position and The Tonight Show became an institution.
Paar hosted the show from 1957-63. During that time, Paar used improv, sometimes bringing unwanted results. Paar was controversial and the networks censored his programs at times. Paar had an announcer-side kick, Hugh Downs and a bandleader, Jose Melis. He also included a group of guests which could be considered regulars and from time to time political figures such as Richard Nixon, and John and Robert Kennedy.
The 60's continued with news talk shows such as Today, which gave Barbara Walters exposure with her coverage of the assassination of President John K. Kennedy. CBS Morning News which was a very straight news broadcast without the conversation, celebrity interviews, and friendly chatter of the Today show also premiered in the 60's.
The 60’s saw the continued success of The Tonight Show, but this time with host Johnny Carson. Carson would reign supreme in night time talk for 30 years until his retirement in 1992 and the succession of Jay Leno as host. He expanded the audience through these years. Young and old, male and female, intellect or not, many people found appeal in The Tonight Show and Carson's capabilities as a host. Many celebrities got their start from an appearance on The TonightShow. Carson’s success may be attributed to several things: he avoided controversy, he was always polite, and he was an outstanding comic improviser.
Throughout these years, the set remained very traditional. During the interviews, Carson asked the questions, the guests responded. Carson sat behind a desk, the quests on comfortable sofas and chairs. The basic format for the Tonight Show, then and now, consisted of opening with the host, music, a monologue delivered to a live audience, a side-kick, and chit-chat and jokes among the host and guests. Most often there was a guest host on Fridays.
The Today show continued into the 70's with Tom Brokaw as host in 1976 and Jane Pauley as co-host.
The only other early morning competitor at this time was Good Morning America which resembled Today in that it brought news, interviews, and feature articles, but the set was a livingroom instead of a newsroom. The effect of this setting was less formal, a more personal feeling. This type of set would be reflected in other shows of the 70's.
It was also during the 60’s that Phil Donahue entered the daytime (afternoon programming) talk show realm. His show premiered in 1967 and The Phil Donahue Show altered the talk show format. Rather than "chatting" with a number of well-known guests, Donahue focused his show on a single topic, and that topic was always related to conflict. His show moved from news to issues. He discussed topics which had been absent from television up to that time. His show was one of the first to be boycotted by stations because it was too graphic and sexually explicit. He sensationalized the issues, yet asked challenging questions of his guests. Donahue used an audience that represented his home viewing audience which was largely comprised of females.
Donahue altered the talk show format. He was the first host to take phone calls from the home viewing audience. More significantly, he was the first host to break the "fourth wall" that separated the audience from the guests and host. He addressed the audience with a microphone, roving in and out of the audience, and allowing audience members to respond to and ask questions about the topic of the day and the guests. Donahue did not sit behind a desk. He became one with his audience. Although he ultimately directed the flow of the show, much of shows content was dependent upon the audience. These new conventions would pave the way for future talk shows. By 1977, Phil Donahue was a household name.
A technical advancement of the 70’s which had an impact on the format of talk shows was the invention of the remote control. This gadget was a convenience for viewers, but a headache for producers. With the "clicker", viewing audiences were inclined to surf the channels. If they were bored with one program, they could effortlessly view another. The effect of this type of viewing demanded that programs immediately grab the viewer’s attention. One way to do that was through sensationalism. Talk shows competed with one another to produce shows that would capture an audiences’ attention; producers had to overshadow their competition.
This competition led to shows such as The Morton Downey Jr. Show. Downey was extremely controversial and used the "fist in mouth" interviewing technique of Joe Pyne. His dialogue was free-form, not planned, not rehearsed. Loud talk led to physical confrontation and after fourteen months, sponsors pulled out and the show went off the air.
Early morning talk shows, Today and Good Morning America, continued in the 80's but a new arrival, Morning made its debut in 1980 as a ninety-minute daily program.
The 80’s ushered in numerous daytime talk shows such as Sally and Jenny Jones, but the most popular of all shows was The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah has been referred to as "the Queen of daytime talk". Oprah, like Donahue, altered the format once again. Her show dealt with risky topics such as abortion and abuse. She personalized issues by revealing secrets from her own past. She offered therapy to her guests. Her shows were emotional, dramatic, and surprising. Oprah’s seemingly sincerity and charismatic personality endeared her to her audience and home viewers. The culture of the 80’s, a time of Aids, drug abuse, disintegration of the family, spawned a number of self-help talk shows.
The real changes to daytime talk shows occurred in the 90’s. Talk shows were "big money". Ratings controlled what was broadcast and what was not. To capture the ratings, hosts had to be popular and topics had to be captivating. Talk show titles read like headlines from the tabloids. In 1993, there were twenty daytime talk shows geared to female viewers between the ages of twenty-eight and forty-nine.
Springer admitted, "when the show went young, it went crazy". With the shift in target audience came the shift in content; topics were out and relationships were in. Shows competed for the most outrageous relationships, often containing R-rated material. Some shows, like Donahue, could not compete.
The JerrySpringer Show was ordered several times to tone down the violence in the show. Attempts were made to do this, but as soon as ratings would begin to fall, the show returned to its previous format of violence, cursing, and sensationalism. Quests have reported that the appearances were staged and scripted, although these claims have been denounced by Jim Benson, a spokesman for Springer's show.
Critics of such talk shows feel that people are being exploited by the medium. Incidents, like the Jenny Jones episode, which resulted in the death of one man because he had confessed his love for another man, led to controversy.
In news talk shows competition between Good Morning America and Today continued in the nineties. In 1999, Later Today, a mixture of news, entertainment, and issue- related segments, premiered. Early morning talk shows continued to focus on news and information with a bit of entertainment thrown in.
Daytime talk shows, however, continued to get progressively trashy in the first half of the decade. Daytime talk shows in the nineties continued to be popular, relationship orientated, aimed primarily at young female audiences, comprised of "normal", everyday people, conflict based, diagnostic, and audience involved.
TheTonight Show moved on to Jay Leno as host in 1992 after Johnny Carson retired. The set remained basically the same, but there was a new band.
Talk shows remain a very integral part of television programming in the new millenium. Producers continue to favor the simplicity and cost effectiveness of talk shows. Various sub-genres are presented, but the early morning talk-news show, afternoon talk-relationship shows, and the late evening talk-entertainment shows remain supremely popular.