The television talk show is, on the face of it, a rather strange institution. We pay people to talk for us. Like the soap opera, the talk show is an invention of twentieth century broadcasting. It takes a very old form of communication, conversation, and transforms it into a low cost but highly popular form of information and entertainment through the institutions, practices and technologies of television. The talk show did not originate over night, at one time, or in one place. It developed out of forty years of television practice and antecedent talk traditions from radio, Chatauqua, vaudeville and popular theater.
In defining the talk show it is useful to distinguish between \”television talk\” (unscripted presentational address) and \”talk shows\”–shows organized principally around talk. \”Television talk\” represents all the unscripted forms of conversation and direct address to the audience that have been present on television from the beginning. This kind of \”live,\” unscripted talk is one of the basic things that distinguishes television from film, photography, the record and book industries.
Television talk is almost always anchored or framed by an announcer or host figure, and may be defined, in Erving Goffman’s terms, as \”fresh talk,\” that is, talk that appears to be generated word by word and in a spontaneous manner. Though it is always to a degree spontaneous, television talk is also highly structured. It takes place in ritualized encounters and what the viewer sees and hears on the air has been shaped by writers, producers, stage managers and technical crews and tailored to the talk formulas of television.
Thus, though it resembles daily speech, the kind of talk that occurs on television does not represent unfettered conversation. Different kinds of television talk occur at different times of the broadcast day, but much of this talk occurs outside the confines of what audiences and critics have come to know as the \”talk show. \” Major talk traditions have developed around news, entertainment, and a variety of social encounters that have been reframed and adapted for television.
For example, talk is featured on game shows, dating or relationship shows, simulated legal encounters (People’s Court) or shows that are essentially elaborate versions of practical jokes (Candid Camera). All of these shows feature talk but are seldom referred to as \”talk shows. \” A \”talk show,\” on the other hand, is as a show that is quite clearly and self-consciously built around its talk. To remain on the air a talk show must adhere to strict time and money constraints, allowing time, for instance, for the advertising spots that must appear throughout the show.
The talk show must begin and end within these rigid time limits and, playing to an audience of millions, be sensitive to topics that will interest that mass audience. For its business managers the television talk show is one product among many and they are usually not amenable to anything that will interfere with profits and ratings. This kind of show is almost always anchored by a host or team of hosts. Host/Forms Talk shows are often identified by the host’s name in the title, an indication of the importance of the host in the history of the television talk show.
Indeed, we might usefully combine the two words and talk about host/forms. A good example of the importance of the host to the form a talk show takes would be The Tonight Show. The Tonight Show premiered on NBC in 1954 with Steve Allen as its first host. While it maintained a distinctive format and style throughout its first four decades on the air, The Tonight Show changed significantly with each successive host. Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Jay Leno each took The Tonight Show in a significant new direction. Each of these hosts imprinted the show with distinctive personalities and management styles.
Though many talk shows run for only weeks or months before being taken off the air, once established, talk shows and talk show hosts tend to have long runs. The average number of years on television for the thirty-five major talk show hosts listed at the end of this essay was eighteen years. Successful talk show hosts like Mike Wallace, Johnny Carson, and Barbara Walters bridge generations of viewers. The longevity of these \”super stars\” increases their impact on the forms and formats of television talk with which they are associated.
Television talk shows originally emerged out of two central traditions: news and entertainment. Over time hybrid forms developed that mixed news, public affairs, and entertainment. These hybrid forms occupy a middle ground position between news and entertainment, though their hosts (Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, and Geraldo Rivera, for example) often got their training in journalism. Approximately a third of the major talk show hosts listed at the end of the essay came out of news. The other two thirds came from entertainment (comedy in particular).
Within the journalistic tradition, the names Edward R. Murrow, Mike Wallace, Ted Koppel and Bill Moyers stand out. News talk hosts like Murrow, Koppel, and Moyers do not have bands, sidekicks, or a studio audience. Their roles as talk show hosts are extensions of their roles as reporters and news commentators. Their shows appear in evening when more adult and older aged viewers are watching. The morning host teams that mix \”happy talk\” and information also generally come from the news background. This format was pioneered by NBC’s Sylvester \”Pat\” Weaver and host Dave Garroway with the Today show in the early 1950s.
Hosts who started out on early morning news talk shows and went on to anchor the evening news or primetime interview shows include: Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, Barbara Walters, Tom Brokaw, and Jane Pauley. Each developed a distinctive style within the more conversational format of their morning show. Coming from a journalism background but engaging in a wider arena of cultural topics were hosts like Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, and Geraldo Rivera. Mixing news, entertainment, and public affairs, Phil Donahue established \”talk television,\” an extension of the \”hot topic\” live radio call-in shows of the 1960s.
Donahue himself ran a radio show in Dayton, Ohio before premiering his daytime television talk show. Donahue’s Dayton show, later syndicated nationally, featured audience members talking about the social issues that affected their lives. Ricki Lake Within the field of entertainment/variety talk, it was the late night talk show that assumed special importance. Late night talk picked up steam when it garnered national attention during the talk show \”wars\” of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
During this time Johnny Carson defended his ratings throne on the Tonight show against challengers Joey Bishop, David Frost, Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin. Late night talk show wars again received front page headlines when Carson’s successors, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Chevy Chase, Arsenio Hall, Dennis Miller, and others engaged in fierce ratings battles after Carson’s retirement. Within the United States these talk show wars assumed epic proportions in the press, and the impact that late night entertainment talk show hosts had over their audiences seemed, at times, to assume that of political leaders or leaders of state.
In an age in which political theorists had become increasingly pessimistic about the possibilities of democracy within the public sphere, late night talk show hosts became sanctioned court jesters who appeared free to mock and question basic American values and political ideas through humor. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s Johnny Carson’s monologue on the Tonight show was considered a litmus test of public opinion, a form of commentary on the news. Jay Leno’s and David Letterman’s comic commentary continued the tradition.
The ratings battle between Leno and Letterman in the early 1990s echoed the earlier battles between Carson, Dick Cavett, and Griffin. But it was not just comic ability that was demanded of the late night hosts. They had to possess a lively, quick-paced interview technique, a persistent curiosity arising directly from their comic world views, lively conversational skills, and an ability to listen and elicit information from a wide range of show business and \”civilian\” guests. It was no wonder that a relatively small number of these hosts survived more than a few years on the air to become stars.
Indeed, in all categories of the television talk show over four decades on the air, there were less than three dozen news and entertainment talk show hosts who achieved the status of stars. While entertainment/variety talk dominated late night television, and the mixed public affairs/entertainment audience participation talk shows with hosts like Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey increasingly came filled daytime hours, prime time remained almost exclusively devoted to drama. Talk Formats
While talk show hosts represent a potpourri of styles and approaches, the number of talk show formats is actually quite limited. For example, a general interest hard news or public affairs show can be built around an expert panel (Washington Week in Review), a panel and news figure (Meet the Press), a magazine format for a single topic (Nightline), a magazine format that deals with multiple topics (Sixty Minutes), or a one-on-one host/guest interview (Bill Moyers’ World of Ideas). These are the standard formats for the discussion of hard news topics.
Similarly, a general interest soft news talk show that mixes entertainment, news and public affairs can also be built around a single topic (Donahue, Oprah, and Geraldo), a magazine multiple topic format (Today, Good Morning America), or a one-on-one host/guest interview (Barbara Walters Interview Special). There are also special interest news/information formats that focus on such subjects as economics (Wall Street Week), sports (Sports Club), homemaking/fashion (Ern Westmore Show), personal psychology (Dr. Ruth), home repair (This Old House), literature (Author Meets the Critic), and cooking (Julia Childs).
Entertainment talk shows are represented by a similarly limited number of formats. By far the most prevalent is the informal celebrity guest/host talk show, which takes on different characteristics depending upon what part of the day it is broadcast. The late night entertainment talk show, with the publicity it received through the \”talk show wars,\” grew rapidly in popularity among viewers during its first four decades on the air. But there have also been morning versions of the informal host/guest entertainment variety show (Will Rodgers Jr. Show), daytime versions (The Robert Q. Lewis Show), and special topic versions (American Bandstand).
Some entertainment talk shows have featured comedy through satirical takes on talk shows (Fernwood Tonight, The Larry Sanders Show), monologues (The Henry Morgan Show), or comedy dialogue (Dave and Charley). Some game shows have been built sufficiently around their talk that they are arguably talk shows in disguise (Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, for instance). There are also a whole range of shows that are not conventionally known as \”talk shows\” but feature \”fresh\” talk and are built primarily around that talk.
These shows center on social encounters or events adapted to television: a religious service (Life is Worth Living), an academic seminar (Seminar), a talent contest (Talent Scouts), a practical joke (Candid Camera), mating rituals (The Dating Game), a forensic event (People’s Court), or a mixed social event (House Party). The line between \”television talk\” and what formally constitutes a talk show is often not easy to draw and shifts over time as new forms of television talk emerge. How To Read a Television Talk Show There are many ways approaches to understanding a television talk show.
It may be viewed as a literary narrative, for instance, or as a social text. As literary texts, talk shows contain characters, settings, and even a loosely defined plot structure which re-enacts itself each evening in the talk rituals that take place in front of the camera. These narratives center on the host as the central recurring character who frames and organizes the talk. Literary analysis of talk shows is relatively rare, but Michael Arlen’s essay on the talk show in The Camera Age, or Kenneth Tynan’s profile of Johnny Carson in The New Yorker, are superb examples of this approach.
Talk shows can also be seen as social texts. Talk shows are indeed forums in which society tests out and comes to terms with the topics, issues and themes that define its basic values, what it means to be a \”citizen,\” a participating member of that society. The \”talk television\” shows of Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey become microcosms of society as cutting-edge social and cultural issues are debated and discussed. By the early 1990s political and social analysts began to pay increasing attention to these forms of television and a number of articles were written about them.
Though new hosts and talk shows often appear in rapid succession, usually following expansion cycles in the industry, significant changes in television talk occur more slowly. These changes have traditionally come about at the hands of a relatively small number of influential talk show hosts and programmers and have occurred within distinct periods of television history. Cycles of Talk: The History of the Television Talk Show The term \”talk show\” was a relatively late invention, coming into use in the mid-1960s, but shows based on various forms of spontaneous talk were a staple of broadcasting from its earliest days.
Radio talk shows of one kind or another made up 24% of all radio programming from l927 to l956, with general variety talk, audience participation, human interest, and panel shows comprising as much as 40-60% of the daytime schedule. Network television from 1949 to 1973 filled over half its daytime program hours with talk programming, devoting 15 to 20% of its evening schedule to talk shows of one kind or another. As the networks went into decline, their viewership dropping from 90% to 65% of the audience in the 1980s and early 1990s, talk shows were one form of programming that continued to expand on the networks and in syndication.
By the summer of 1993 the television page of USA Today listed seventeen talk shows and local papers as many as twenty-seven. In all, from 1948 to 1993 over two hundred talk shows appeared on the air. These shows can be broken down into four cycles of television talk show history corresponding to four major periods of television history itself. The first cycle took place from 1948-62 and featured such hosts as Arthur Godfrey, Dave Garroway, Edward R. Murrow, Arlene Francis, and Jack Paar. These hosts had extensive radio experience before coming to television and they were the founders of television talk.
During this time the talk show’s basic forms–coming largely out of previous radio and stage traditions–took shape. The second cycle covers the period from 1962 to 1972 when the networks took over from sponsors and advertising agencies as the dominant forces in talk programming. A small but vigorous syndicated talk industry grew during this period as well. In the 1960s and early 1970s three figures established themselves on the networks as talk hosts with staying power: Johnny Carson, Barbara Walters, and Mike Wallace.
Each was associated with a program that became an established profit center for their network and each used that position to negotiate the sustained status with the network that propelled them into the 1970s and 1980s as a star of television talk. The third cycle of television talk lasted from 1970 to 1980. During this decade challenges to network domination arose from a number of quarters. While the networks themselves were initiating few new talk shows by 1969, syndicated talk programming exploded. Twenty new talk shows went on the air in 1969 (up to then the average number of new shows rarely exceeded five).
It was a boom period for television talk–and the time of the first nationally publicized \”talk show wars. \” New technologies of production (cheaper television studios and production costs), new methods of distribution (satellite transmission and cable), and key regulatory decisions by the FCC made nationally syndicated talk increasingly profitable and attractive to investors. Dick Cavett Talk show hosts like Phil Donahue took advantage of the situation. Expanding from 40 markets in 1974 to a national audience of 167 markets in 1979, Donahue became the nation’s number one syndicated talk show host by the late 1970s.
Other new talk show hosts entered the field as well. Bill Moyers’ Journal went on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1970, and William Buckley’s Firing Line, which had appeared previously in syndication, went on PBS a year later. Both Moyers and Buckley, representing liberal and conservative viewpoints respectively, were to remain significant figures on public broadcasting for the next two decades. During this time independent stations and station groups, first run syndication, cable and VCR’s began to weaken the networks’ once invincible hold over national audiences.
The fourth cycle of television talk took place in the period from 1980 to 1992, a period that has been commonly referred to as the \”post-network\” era. Donahue’s success in syndication was emulated by others, most notably Oprah Winfrey, whose Donahue-style audience participation show went into national syndication in 1986. Winfrey set a new record for syndication earnings, grossing over a hundred million dollars a year from the start of her syndication. She became, financially, the most successful talk show host on television.
By the early 1980s the networks were vigorously fighting back. Late Night with David Letterman and Ted Koppel’s Nightline were two network attempts to win back audiences. Both shows gained steady ratings over time and established Koppel and Letterman as stars of television talk. Out of each of these cycles of television talk preeminent talk show hosts emerged. Following the careers of these hosts allows us to we see how talk shows are built from within by strong personalities and effective production teams, and shaped from without by powerful economic, technological, and cultural forces.
Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford Paradigm Shifts in Late Night Entertainment: Carson to Letterman Johnny Carson, for thirty years the \”King of Late Night,\” and his successor, David Letterman, were in many ways alike. Their rise to fame could be described by the same basic story. A young man from America’s heartland comes to the city, making his way through its absurdities and frustrations with feckless humor. This exemplary middle American is \”square\” and at the same time sophisticated, innocent, though ironic and irreverent.
Straddling the worlds of common sense and show business, the young man becomes a national jester–and is so anointed by the press. The \”type\” Johnny Carson and David Letterman represent can be traced to earlier archetypes: the \”Yankee\” character in early American theater and the \”Toby\” character of nineteenth century tent repertory. Carson brought his version of this character to television at the end of the Eisenhower and beginning of the Kennedy era, poking fun at American consumerism and politics in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Letterman brought his own version of this sharp-eyed American character to the television screen two decades later at the beginning of the Reagan era. By this time the \”youth\” revolts in the 1960s and 1970s were already on the wane, and Letterman replaced the politics of confrontation represented by the satire of such shows as Saturday Night Live and SCTV with a politics of accommodation, removal, and irony. His ironic stance was increasingly acknowledged as capturing the \”voice\” of his generation and, whether as cause or effect, Letterman became a generational symbol.
The shift from Carson to Letterman represented not only a cultural change but a new way of looking at television as a medium. Carson’s camera was rooted in the neutral gaze of the proscenium arch tradition; Letterman’s camera roamed wildly and flamboyantly through the studio. Carson acknowledged the camera with sly asides; Letterman’s constant, neurotic intimacy with the camera, characterized by his habit of moving right up to the lens and speaking directly into it, represented a new level of self-consciousness about the medium.
He extended the \”self-referentiality\” that Carson himself had promoted over the years on his talk show. Indeed, Letterman represented a movement from what has been called a transparent form of television (the viewer taking for granted and looking through the forms of television: camera, lighting, switching, etc. ) to an opaque form in which the technology and practices of the medium itself become the focus of the show. Letterman changed late night talk forever with his post-modern irreverence and mocking play with the forms of television talk.
Paradigm Shifts in the Daytime Audience Participation Talk Show: Donahue to Winfrey When Oprah Winfrey rose to national syndication success in 1986 by challenging Phil Donahue in major markets around the country and winning ratings victories in many of these markets, she did not change the format of the audience participation talk show. That remained essentially as Donahue had established it twenty years before. What changed was the cultural dynamics of this kind of show and that in turn was a direct reflection of the person who hosted it.
The ratings battle that ensued in 1986 was between a black woman raised by a religious grandmother and strict father within the fold of a black church in the South against a white, male, liberal, Catholic Midwesterner who had gone to Notre Dame and been permanently influenced by the women’s movement. As Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier four decades earlier, Oprah Winfrey broke the color line for national television talk show hosts in 1986.
She became one of the great \”Horatio Alger\” rags-to-riches story of the 1980s (by the early 1990s People Weekly was proclaiming her \”the richest woman in show business\” with an estimated worth of $200 million), and as Arsenio Hall and Bob Costas ended their six and seven year runs on television in the early 1990s, it became clear that Oprah Winfrey had staying power. She remained one of the few prominent talk show hosts of the 1980s to survive within the cluttered talk show landscape of mid-1990s. Several factors contributed to this success.
For one thing, Winfrey had a smart management team and a full-press national marketing campaign to catapult her into competition with Donahue. The national syndication deal had been worked out by Winfrey’ representative, attorney-manager Jeffrey Jacobs, and King World’s marketing plan was a classic one. Executives at King World felt the media would pounce on \”a war with Donahue\” so they created one. The first step was to send tapes of Oprah’s shows to \”focus groups\” in several localities to see how they responded.
The results were positive. The next step was to show tapes to selected station groups–small network alliances of a half-dozen or more stations under a single owner. These groups would be offered exclusive broadcast rights. As the reactions began to come in, King World adjusted its tactics. Rather than making blanket offers, they decided to open separate negotiations in each city and market. The gamble paid off. Winfrey’s track record proved her a \”hot enough commodity\” to win better deals through individual station negotiation.
To launch Winfrey on the air King World kicked off a major advertising campaign. Media publications trumpeted Oprah’s ratings victories over Donahue in Baltimore and Chicago. The \”Donahue-buster\” strategy was tempered by Winfrey herself, who worked hard not to appear too arrogant or conceited. When asked about head-on competition with Donahue she replied that in a majority of markets she did not compete with him directly and that while Donahue would certainly remain \”the king,\” she just wanted to be \”a part of the monarchy.
By the time The Oprah Winfrey Show went national in September of 1986 it had been signed by over 180 stations–less than Donahue’s 200-plus but approaching that number. As well as refined marketing and advertising techniques, cultural issues also featured prominently in Winfrey’s campaign. Winfrey’s role as talk show host was inseparable from her identity as an African American woman. Her African American heritage and roots surfaced frequently in press accounts. One critic described her in a 1986 Spy magazine article as \”capaciously built, black, and extremely noisy.
These and other comments on her \”black\” style were not lost on Winfrey. She confronted with the issue of race constantly and was very conscious of her image as an African American role model. When a USA Today reporter queried Winfrey bluntly about the issue of race in August of 1986, asking her \”as someone who is not pencil-thin, white, nor blond,\” how she was \”transcending barriers that have hindered many in television,\” Winfrey replied as follows: I’ve been able to do it because my race and gender have never been an issue for me.
I’ve been blessed in knowing who I am, and I am a part of a great legacy. I’ve crossed over on the backs of Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Madam C. J. Walker. Because of them I can now soar. Because of them I can now live the dream…. Winfrey’s remarks represent the \”double-voiced\” identity of many successful African American public figures. Such figures, according to Henry Louis Gates, demonstrate \”‘his or her own membership in the human community and then … resistance to that community. ”
In the mid-1980s, then, the image of Oprah Winfrey as national talk show host played against both white and black systems of values and aesthetics. It was her vitality as a double-sign, not simply her role as an \”Horatio Alger\” figure, that made her compelling to a national audience in the United States. Hosts like Letterman and Winfrey played multiple roles. They were simultaneously star performers, managing editors, entrepreneurs, cultural symbols and setters of social trends. Of all the star performers who dot the landscape of television, the talk show host might have the most direct claim to the film director’s status as auteur.
Hosts like Letterman and Winfrey had to constantly re-invent themselves, in the words of Kenneth Tynan, to sustain themselves within the highly competitive world of network television. Conclusion The talk show, like the daily newspaper, is often considered a disposable form. The first ten years of Johnny Carson’s Tonight shows, for example, were erased by NBC without any thought to future use. Scholars have similarly neglected talk shows. News and drama offered critics from the arts, humanities, and social sciences at least a familiar place to begin their studies.
Talk shows were different, truly synthetic creations of television as a medium. Nonetheless, talk shows have become increasingly important on television and their hosts increasingly influential. They speak to cultural ideas and ideals as forcefully as politicians or educators. National talk show hosts become surrogates for the citizen. Interrogators on the news or clown princes and jesters on entertainment talk shows, major television hosts have a license to question and mock–as long as they play within the rules. An investigation of the television talk show must, finally, delineate and examine those rules.
Mike Douglas The first governing principle of the television talk show is that everything that occurs on the show is framed by the host who characteristically has a high degree of control over both the show and the production team. From a production point of view, the host is the managing editor; from a marketing point of view, the host is the label that sells the product; from an power and organizational point of view, the host’s star value is the fulcrum of power in contract negotiations with advertisers, network executives, and syndicators.
Without a \”brand-name\” host, a show may continue but it will not be the same. A second principle of television talk show is that it is experienced in the present tense. This is true whether the show is live or taped \”as-if live\” in front of a studio audience. Live, taped, or shown in \”reruns,\” talk shows are conducted, and viewers participate in them, as if host, guest and viewer occupy the same moment. As social texts, television talk shows are highly sensitive to the topics of their social and cultural moment.
These topics may concern passing fashions or connect to deeper preoccupations. References to the O. J. Simpson case on television talk shows in the mid-1990s, for example, reflected a preoccupation in the United States with domestic violence and issues of gender, race, and class. Talk shows are, in this sense, social histories of their times. While it is host-centered, occurring in a real or imagined present tense, sensitive to the historical moment, and based on a form of public/private intimacy, the television talk show is also a commodity.
Talk shows have been traditionally cheap to produce. In 1992 a talk show cost less than $100,000 compared to up to a million dollars or more for a prime time drama. By the early 1990s developments in video technology made talk shows even more economical to produce and touched off a new wave of talk shows on the air. Still, the rule of the market place prevailed. A joke on Johnny Carson’ final show that contained 75 words and ran 30 seconds was worth approximately $150,000–the cost to advertisers of a 30-second \”spot\” on that show.
Each word of the joke cost approximately $2000. Though the rates of Carson’s last show were particularly high, commercial time on television is always expensive, and an industry of network and station \”reps,\” time buyers and sellers work constantly to negotiate and manage the cost of talk commodities on the television market. If a talk show makes money over time, its contract will be renewed. If it does not, no matter how valuable or critically acclaimed it may be, it will be pulled from the air. A commodity so valuable must be carefully managed and planned.
It must fit the commercial imperatives and time limits of for-profit television. Though it can be entertaining, even \”outrageous,\” it must never seriously alienate advertisers or viewers. As we can see from the examples above, talk shows are shaped by many hands and guided by a clear set of principles. These rules are so well known that hosts, guests and viewers rarely stop to think about them. What appears to be one of television’s most unfettered and spontaneous forms turns out to, on closer investigation, one of its most complex and artful creations.