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Daytime Talk Shows Changing Society’s Mores, Researchers Say

June 17, 1994

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ There was the grandmother who slept with the paper boy and the father of four who abandoned his family 20 years ago. Don’t forget the man who had sex with his mother-in-law and people who support killing abortion doctors.

They’re on their way to becoming respected celebrities, as daytime talk shows continue to desensitize audiences with subjects once considered taboo, a Penn State University sociologist contends.

″If you see shows about men who sleep with their mothers-in-law enough, people get used to these things,″ researcher Vicki Abt said. ″If you see this all the time, the man who doesn’t sleep with his mother-in-law will eventually become strange.″

Daytime talk shows have covered so many topics once considered unspeakable that some viewers don’t know the difference between right and wrong, Abt said.

″Our culture used to give us boundaries,″ Abt said. ″Today, there are no boundaries. Nothing is forbidden anymore. Television emphasizes the deviant so that it becomes normal.

″If you really are normal, no one cares.″

She and her partner, English professor Mel Seesholtz, based their conclusions on 60 episodes of top-rated talk shows - 20 each from the shows of Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jessy Raphael and Phil Donahue.

The academics, based at Penn State’s Ogontz campus near Philadelphia, will publish their findings this summer in the Journal of Popular Culture.

They contend the talk shows have abandoned traditional talk-show styles that focus on celebrities plugging recent books or movies.

This week, Winfrey’s show included episodes on personality tests and aggressive girls. Raphael’s featured women in love with convicts, nude dancing daughters and women heroin addicts. Donahue featured a woman’s dispute with her late husband’s ex-wife and another whose sister-in-law had her baby.

Donahue spokeswoman Rena Donlon said the show has taken summer hiatus, and she refused to comment on the study. Representatives for Winfrey and Raphael also declined comment, saying they would need to read the article.

Abt said the daily dosages of distress and dilemma have become more acceptable for viewers over time. The result, she said: Television prompts people’s actions rather than vice versa.

″It’s become more and more difficult for people to know the difference between fame and infamy,″ Abt said. ″A child sees that if he acts terribly, he might get on Phil, Sally or Oprah.″

Chris Darryn, president of the National Talk Show Guest Registry of Reseda, Calif., said the researchers need to lighten up.

″For people to watch them like they watch the evening news is silly,″ said Darryn, who tracks hundreds of people looking to be guests on talk shows, then submits their stories to the shows.

Darryn’s registry includes people selling UFO insurance, a man with more than 100 Disney character tattoos and people who have survived all sorts of traumatic experiences.

Darryn said most people who watch talk shows are merely seeking entertainment.

″You have to take it with a grain of salt,″ Darryn said. ″If they have (negative) kind of impact on a person, maybe that person is a talk-show candidate themselves.″

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Elsewhere in television ...

‘GOOD MORNING AMERICA’ AT NIGHT: New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle and his sons, David and Danny, give their first joint interview Sunday in the prime time special, ″Good Morning America at Night.″

In addition, pop star Phil Collins will appear live, from Philadelphia’s Spectrum, on his current world tour. Collins will perform live during the ″GMAAN″ special.

Other highlights include Spencer Christian reporting live from Bedrock, Colo., pop. 50, where resident Lynda Ayres has answered fan mail addressed to the Flintstones for the past 17 years.

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