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Talk Show Shakeout: Moral Backlash Meets Dollars & Sense

January 11, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ What on earth is happening to the daytime talk shows? They’re dropping like flies that have fed on a poisoned carcass.

``The marketplace has rejected virtually all of the freshman talk shows, plus a couple of sophomores,″ said Richard Kurlander of Petry Television, which represents stations in program and commercial time purchases. ``When all is said and done, about 10 talk shows will not return next year.″

It didn’t happen in a vacuum.

Just about all daytime ratings were socked by the real-time drama of the O.J. Simpson trial, and didn’t bounce back. One survey found the average share _ the percentage of sets tuned in _ for a daytime talk show dropped 30 percent from October ’94 to October ’95.

Cultural critics also inveighed against so-called ``trash TV.″ Just last month, ``Book of Virtues″ author William Bennett teamed with Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sam Nunn, D-Ga., to condemn these shows as ``cultural rot,″ and urge boycotts of products that advertise on them.

Then came the cancellations. Just last week, ``Charles Perez″ and ``Gabrielle″ (Carteris) joined fellow freshman daytimers ``Danny!″ (Bonaduce) and ``Carnie″ (Wilson) in cancellation heaven.

A revamped ``Mark Walberg″ show was relaunched with a nonexploitive agenda, and ``Geraldo″ will be return this fall as ``The Geraldo Rivera Show,″ with an issues-oriented appeal.

As a final, exquisite irony, Phil Donahue, who invented the genre 29 seasons ago, is expected shortly to announce he is folding his show. He’s on vacation and not giving interviews, his publicist said.

Is dysfunctional TV being hooted off the dais? Have we, as a culture, tired of transvestite kick-boxers? Will large-breasted women languish without their ``Jerry Springer″ forum?

Not likely, say the experts. The spate of first-year losers is more a question of viewer burnout and market saturation than backlash.

``This was predictable,″ said Janeen Bjork of station representative Seltel, who links the freshman flunk-out to the huge success two seasons ago of ``Ricki Lake,″ a show targeted to the hard-to-please 18- to 34-year-old woman.

``A great deal of people, faced with this incredible success, said, `I can do that.′ What we got was the Ricki Lake show starring Gordon Elliott or Carnie Wilson,″ Ms. Bjork said.

It was a monumental folly, said Richard Coveny, executive vice president of Multimedia Entertainment, which syndicates Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael, Jerry Springer and Rush Limbaugh. ``If you look at the numbers and see how many 18- to 34-year-olds there are available, it’s mind-boggling,″ Coveny said. ``They all just cannibalized each other.″

The shows themselves were topic-driven and lacked established hosts. Their young producers had trained on the same shows and got the same ideas. ``Viewers started to recognize guests and subjects,″ Ms. Bjork added.

Kurlander agreed. ``The rejection is based on the saturation of the exploitive,″ Kurlander said. ``It’s tied to the Bennett-Lieberman-Nunn position, but it would have crashed and burned under its own weight.″

The imminent demise of ``Donahue″ is tied to the decision last fall by New York City’s WNBC-TV to drop the show. That meant an immediate loss of more than 7 percent of the U.S. audience. The show is off in San Francisco, too.

``Even without New York and without San Francisco, `Donahue’ is still ranked 10th out of 18 shows,″ said Multimedia’s Coveny. ``If he decided to do the show one more year, or add an alternate host, or change the show in some form, we’d have no problem with that.″

Ratings for ``Donahue″ have declined over the past three years, however, and fewer stations carrying his show _ ``clearances″ _ put him in the same bind as the freshmen shows: Not enough audience to attract advertisers.

``If you’re cleared in 80 percent of the country and you get, say, a 2 rating, that’s not really a 2 rating,″ Kurlander explained. ``It’s 80 percent of a 2.″

Multimedia executives believe they’ll have Donahue’s decision to quit within days.

The industry experts believe the first-year crop failure won’t affect established hosts like top-rated Oprah Winfrey, who has inherited Donahue’s mantle of probity in discussing sensitive topics. It doesn’t even mean trouble for established shows that dabble in the sensational.

``Sally, Montel, Ricki, Jenny, Geraldo and Springer are not going to become a walk in the park,″ Kurlander said. ``But they are more centered than they were a few months ago. ... They’re still titillating and exploitive, just not as much as they were.″

Several shows will linger, hoping that the four absentees will mean better numbers in the February ratings sweep, one of three monthlong periods of intense audience measurement that let local stations set their ad rates.

A bad February ratings ``book,″ however, could mean the borderline shows will not return this fall.

Reformatting shows like ``Geraldo″ and ``Mark Walberg″ suggest that the industry is altering its focus. ``The trend for next year’s shows seems to be moving away from straight talk to a more respectable version, or at least a playful one,″ Ms. Bjork said.

One-hour offerings at the industry’s big convention later this month include ``The Bradshaw Difference,″ featuring the revered family therapist John Bradshaw; ``Donna Willis, M.D.;″ comedian ``Rosie O’Donnell,″ and ``Pat Bullard,″ who Multimedia touts as ``the next Phil Donahue.″

Entertainment-driven talk shows will include Nashville’s ``Crook & Chase,″ the eccentric ``Jim J. and Tammy Faye,″ featuring the preacher’s ex-wife, and ``Scoop with Sam & Dorothy.″

Syndicators will also be offering a raft of ``relationship″ shows, including ``Loveline,″ ``He Says, She Says,″ and Worldvision’s ``Swaps″ game show, where ``three ex-couples who, through a series of fun-filled games, determine whether they should reunite or swap with another contestant’s ex.″

``What I’m delighted to see here, is a resurgence of game show,″ Coveny said. ``They’re going to come back into favor again.″

Game shows?

``We have to program for the audience that’s there,″ said Coveny. ``When we program for the audience that we wish was there, we lose big.″

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