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Phil Donahue Celebrates 20 Years of TV Talk Show

November 5, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ When Phil Donahue was getting ready to do his first televised talk show on Nov. 6, 1967, there was a problem: The audience had shown up with tickets to the variety show Donahue had replaced.

″Somebody said, ‘What are we going to do with this audience?’ And somebody said, ‘Why don’t we sit ‘em down and let ’em watch the interview,‴ recalled Donahue.

The audience had come to win prizes and wave at the camera on the local variety show, so they were unfazed by Donahue’s first guest, atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and piped up with questions during the commercial breaks.

Donahue thought some of their questions were better than his. Sometime that week, he dived into the audience with the microphone, and a style was born.

Twenty years later, ″Donahue″ has moved from Dayton, Ohio, to Chicago to New York and become a part of American popular culture.

It’s esteemed, ridiculed, imitated and spoofed, thanks to the audience, Adnoahue said.

″We certainly would not have survived with two talking heads in front of the curtain,″ he said in a telephone interview from the studio where he was editing his 20th anniversary show, scheduled for broadcast Friday.

″It’s the community that develops between the audience and the guest,″ he said.

The anniversary show is a time capsule containing two decades of American culture: John Wayne, Bob Hope, Bette Davis, Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck; death row; an abortion clinic; a home birth; a dying AIDS patient; the garbarge barge; an abused wife; and a homeless teen- ager.

There are snippets of America’s family arguments, too, including Jerry Rubin railing against conformism, Jane Fonda arguing against the war in Vietnam, Tricia Nixon defending her father in the midst of Watergate, Daniel Ellsberg confronting William Westmoreland.

Donahue let average citizens - most of them representative of his largely female viewing audience - talk back to the high and mighty.

They argued with George Bush, questioned Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, verbally sparred with Muhammad Ali, told off Larry Flynt and quizzed Daniel Ortega.

Then, there were the strippers, transsexuals, homosexual parents, bisexual mates, polygamists and distributors of sexual devices.

″I think what we’ve got here is a very instructive reflection of what’s happened to the culture over the past two decades,″ Donahue said.

The show became more than a parade of celebrity guests, because there were no celebrities in Dayton. ″We were quite literally forced to go to issues,″ he said.

Issues abounded in the mid-1960s, and some, like homosexuality or the Vietnam war, were scandalous to sponsors. Some pulled their advertising.

″We didn’t have that much to lose because we weren’t that big,″ Donahue said.

″We didn’t know we were going to last 20 days, much less 20 years.″

″The Phil Donahue Show″ was syndicated in 1969 by Avco, a mid-West network that included WLWD. In 1974, Donahue moved the show to Chicago, where the name was changed to ″Donahue.″ Avco sold the show in 1976 to Multimedia Entertainment, the syndication company that produces and distributes the show to 214 stations.

″Donahue″ moved to New York in 1985. For the past two months, it has originated from Connecticut because of a strike against NBC. Donahue’s studio is in NBC’s building in Manhattan. The strike has ended.

Asked the most notable among his almost 5,000 shows, Donahue does not hesitate to name a 1977 show featuring actress Marlo Thomas. They married three years later.

Thomas remembered that show Wednesday when she appeared for the first time on ″Donahue″ since then.

She said she had gone on the show to talk about women’s rights but dissolved into gushing over Donahue. ″I don’t know what got into us. I just turned into this mush.″

Last year, ″Donahue″ faced its first serious ratings challenge, from ″Oprah,″ featuring popular Chicago talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.

Winfrey has drawn bigger ratings nationwide, but Donahue’s show has not lost ratings. They only go head-to-head in a few markets.

Donahue says there is room for competition.

″I think you could argue the more talk shows the better,″ he said. ″What this all means is that we have more and varied sources of information, and we’re more likely to find the collective truth in the middle of all these people who are presuming to chase it.″

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