DEAR DR. DAN . . . : Live Psychology Advice Show Joins a Growing TV Trend

The bus that will bring an audience to the Hollywood studio is late, so Dan Kiley is reading 10- and 20-second promotional spots for forthcoming shows. A tall, silver-haired man, he sits upright on a stool, cradling a microphone, joking easily with the crew. Kiley breezes through the taping.

Coming soon, he says: " . . . a wife full of rage while her husband sits around the house, and then a man is so afraid he won't leave his house . . . Two Romeos after the same Juliet, and then a man whose nightmares are driving him crazy . . . A husband who's out of work while his wife is out of patience, and a woman whose full-time lover is part-time lover with her best friend."

When the audience arrives, more than an hour late, the crew scrambles to begin taping. On camera, an attractive blond woman promises to introduce "two writers writing the wrong script" and "two daughters of a wife beater."

"Now, remember," she adds. "Nothing has been rehearsed. No one has been told what to say."

But it's not all spontaneous: During breaks, an actor will encourage the audience, recruited at tourist sites like Universal Studios, to participate. "You are part of the show," he will tell them. "When the green light goes on, if you have something to say, call out, 'Dr. Dan, Dr. Dan!'

"But don't argue with Dr. Dan. It's his show."

The lights come up on Kiley, 44, a bearded psychologist, who sits in a brown armchair. Seated at his right, are two guests, Hilda and Jeffrey. Though anger and frustration are apparent in her voice, Hilda articulately explains a problem: They are writing partners; Jeffrey often is distracted from work, which makes her so angry she can't work. As Hilda speaks, Jeffrey slouches in his chair. He rhythmically taps his fingers.

Despite appearances, this is not a talk show. Rather, it is "People in Crisis," a new half-hour program scheduled to air twice daily on Lifetime cable beginning Monday. Like the spate of popular radio shows that are its inspiration, "People in Crisis" features a psychologist offering on-air advice/counseling/therapy.

Kiley, known as Dr. Dan, has had his own radio call-in show and written a number of books, including "The Peter Pan Syndrome," a 1983 best seller, and a companion volume, "The Wendy Dilemma." (His next book, "What to Do When He Won't Change," will be published this fall by G. P. Putnam's Sons. But the format of "People in Crisis" also borrows from "People's Court" and "Donahue," for it offers 15-minute doses of common folk airing personal problems--with audience commentary.

In typical segments, "People in Crisis" will feature an actress hoping to become more assertive, a former TV anchorman whose life has fallen apart, and two sisters who grew up with an abusive father. In one segment, a man with AIDS will discuss his desire to reconcile with his mother.

Although it is the first show since "Couples" in 1983 to bring real people, on camera, to a therapist--others, like Dr. Ruth Westheimer, take telephone calls--"People in Crisis" won't be the only TV psychology around. This fall, Dick Clark Productions plans to release David Viscott's "Getting in Touch," a syndicated show to air locally on KNBC, and Lifetime is programming "People in Crisis" with reruns of "Couples" and "Our Group," a dramatic show with actors portraying characters in group therapy.

Research on the value of radio advice shows is scanty but their attraction is obvious: People can get free (if quick and often superficial) advice from a (usually) sympathetic psychologist while remaining anonymous. It is populist psychology. So why would people forsake that anonymity to go on TV and bare their souls--to spend 15 minutes with a famous psychologist who says he is "concerned" about the show's "hyperbole" and "bothered" by its time constraints? No one involved with the show claims to have a definite answer.

The question intrigues Kiley, a devotee of self-help books who scours bookstore self-help sections and tries to read every book published in the field. (He's read as many as six in a week, he says.)

"Television has had a major impact on people's lives," says Kiley, who warns that his hypothesis is extremely tentative. "It is an unbelievably strong tool, the most powerful form of influence ever created by man. (Guests on the show) have been influenced as passive recipients."

His show, Kiley suggests, may offer those who participate an opportunity to reverse that role--"to actively use television's great influence on themselves."

Producer David Fein of Lynch/Biller Productions, who interviews prospective guests, says people are desperate to talk to someone. "It just may be that, in 1987, a television show is a safer environment than a therapist's office. People know what to expect from television. They don't know what to expect one-on-one in a therapist's office."

On stage, Jeffrey, the writer, stutters as he begins to give his side of the conflict with Hilda. They work in his apartment and he feels compelled to answer the phone when it rings, and to help neighbors who stop by.

Kiley asks if Jeffrey and Hilda are married. They are not. He asks if they are having an affair. They respond, in unison, that they are just friends.

"Why not have an affair?"' Kiley asks, drawing laughter from the audience.

"We argue as friends," Hilda says. "If we had a relationship we'd probably kill each other."

Kiley asks if they have ever discussed having an affair. The answer, again, is no. Twice more, in different words, he repeats the question.

Kiley jokes about his own persistence: The audience, he admits, may be learning "more about the doctor than the patient. " He asks audience members if they believe that Hilda and Jeffrey have never had an affair. This too draws laughter.

"You've never really had, as they say in the local news, a 'tryst?' " Kiley asks.

Then he asks again. And again. And again--10 times in all, until a member of the audience calls out, "Maybe that's why you can't work together."

Cut for a commercial.

Why do people go on television to discuss personal problems? For some, the $100 fee is an attraction, but, like David Fein and Dan Kiley, those who appear on "People in Crisis" also have trouble answering this question.

"I write for television," explains Hilda Vincent. "Since I'm in the business, it seemed natural for us to go on the show."

She says that she and Jeffrey Fassbinder did not consider going to a private therapist: "If the problem ever got that bad," she says, "we'd just split up."

For Bill Jacocks, a former Cleveland anchorman whose career and life were on the skids--he had been evicted, was living in a hotel and working as a phone salesman--the very publicness of TV was part of what he hopes will lead to recovery. "I was always the strong, silent type," said Jacocks, whose deep, mellifluous voice got him a referral to a voice-over agent. His 15 minutes with Kiley, he said, were "a catharsis."

Kiley suggested that bitterness is holding Jacocks back; he agreed. "I don't think he so much gave me solutions as he allowed me to get at my own solution," Jacocks said later.

Another guest said that he and his girlfriend, actress Lisa Pescia, had hoped the show would help others with her problem, a lack of assertiveness. And, during taping of that segment, several women in the audience said they faced such a difficulty.

Kiley's advice to actress Pescia was quintessential Dr. Dan. A vocal critic of Establishment psychology, especially Freudians, he advocates prescriptive, "self-management" psychology: "Therapy," he says, "is learning to change, and practicing it."

A supremely confident man, Kiley looks forward to a time when psychologists, enlightened by an explosion of research on the human brain, can offer patients mental "prescriptions" for psychological problems, much as medical doctors treat physical illness. As a pop psychologist, he sees his job as translating that research into words a lay person can understand--and be entertained by.

"The key to assertiveness is actually giving yourself the right to be loved," Kiley told Pescia. Afterward, he suggested that she tape the sentence, "I've got the right to be human" to her mirror and say it aloud 10 times every morning. She liked the advice and, several days later, said it had already helped her.

"What I'm doing on television doesn't have a lot to do with what would go on if that person were in my office," Kiley acknowledges. "What I would hope to do is lead them to look at their situation from a different perspective. Most of the people have problems with living, and they need to look at new alternatives."

The other half of the TV-psychology equation, of course, is the viewer audience--and their motivations are as murky as those of guests. Several psychologists interviewed by Calendar compared the motivations of psychology show viewers to those who view films or read novels: They want, in part, to learn about how others live. At its best, some claim, the appeal of TV psychology will be similar.

"Listening to someone else's problems has an appeal and a value," contends producer Fein. "Part of the person is listening to the story, and part of them is reflecting on their own life. That self-reflection is healthy, is important."

But the distinction between self-reflection, or a healthy sympathy (what Kiley calls an "affiliation" response), and voyeurism--the gratuitous spying on the private lives of others--is a fine one.

"The viewers at home are voyeurs, in a sense," says Ritch Colbert, president of Access Syndication, which is distributing "Getting in Touch." "They're on the outside looking in at other people's lives."

But voyeurism, one psychologist argued, was a harsh, pejorative, inappropriate word.

Like other psychologists interviewed, Michael Broder, president of the American Psychology Assn.'s division of media psychology, was reluctant to criticize the concept of TV therapy, though he was skeptical about the notion and its chance for success: "I don't necessarily think it's a great format or in good taste, but that's just my personal opinion," says Broder, who hosts a radio show in Philadelphia. "This format has a right to be tried."

David Fein, a former ABC executive and game show producer ("Anything for Money"), contends that TV psychology can, like its radio cousin, popularize therapy. In interviews, he frequently expressed concern for the ethics and efficacy of the medium; to address such matters, he and Kiley are cooperating with a UCLA student who is doing research for a doctoral dissertation on the show, and that student is offering referrals and follow-up assistance to all "People in Crisis" guests.

"I believe this strongly," Fein says. "You have an obligation not to fade to black and simply go on to your next show. I've been in this business too long to open people up and then leave them dangling."

After abandoning the topic of sex, Kiley offers a suggestion to writers Hilda and Jeffrey. Perhaps they should look at their conflict "as a son-mother thing," he says.

Afterward, Hilda is miffed at Kiley's emphasis on sex. "It was embarrassing," she says. "That wasn't my problem. But it sells."

Yet she is pleased with her appearance on the show, because it "opened up my partner. It gave him perspective, made him realize that he has to do something about his work habits."

Kiley says later in an interview that he may be wrong about the writers, but he has seen such "spatting" dominate many modern love relationships.

"But so what?" he asks. "So I'm wrong! I don't look at myself as the doctor and people as patients. I am a teacher; people who come to me are students. I don't take responsibility for the student's success or failure. I take responsibility for the lesson I offer."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°