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TV Talk Shows Going . . . and Coming . . . : The Impact of Tabloid TV Ends Gary Collins’ Daytime ‘Hour’

Times Staff Writer

“When you have had your fill of TV’s tabloid talk shows--Geraldo’s satan worshipers, Oprah’s weight loss, Phil’s transvestites--it is nice to know that you can escape to the common sense tranquillity of ‘Hour Magazine’ and its affable host Gary Collins.”

So began the letter from Collins’ publicity agent Dec. 7.

Although the show had recently “undergone a bit of a face lift,” including a title change to “Gary Collins’ Hour Magazine” to give it a more personal touch, the publicist added there was no change in the show’s “core objective: to consistently inform and entertain without forcing kids to leave the room and without anyone shouting at you.”

Eight days later in a midseason surprise, comparisons would no longer matter. After 8 1/2 years, Group W Productions told Collins that “Hour"--seen here on Fox’s KTTV Channel 11 at noon--was being taken off the air. The last show is Jan. 20.

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From a high of 154 stations across the nation in mid-1986, the program had dropped to 104 stations. “Stations were focusing on different program forms,” Group W President Derk Zimmerman explained, “and, frankly, that’s not compatible with Gary’s style. . . . Gary Collins is a terrific guy, always has been, still is. . . .”

The clear implication was that Zimmerman was talking about program forms so successfully marketed by Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera.

The irony is that until he got canceled, Collins and his show hardly got noticed. No one, after all, would ever toss a chair in the air on his “Hour” and break his nose.

Collins apparently lost out by being too nice. To some viewers his “tranquillity” translated into dull. As TV Guide sniped last spring, “This is the TV talk show that poses the burning question: If host Gary Collins were any more low-key, would he still register a pulse?”

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It is, of course, precisely that kind of blandness that works so well for the 50-year-old picture-book-handsome Collins as master of ceremonies on the “Miss America Pageant” and on the annual National March of Dimes telethon co-hosted with Mary Ann Mobley, his wife of 21 years, who was Miss America 1959.

To Collins, who has no apologies for his “soft, service information” show, the real irony is that his last week on the air is all about tabloid TV, and that he was told of the show’s demise while taping shows on that theme. Another change “Hour” producers had instituted to keep up with its competitors was having assorted “theme weeks.”

“I don’t think there was any question in anyone’s mind how the changes in the marketplace and the format out there had rendered a program like ours, which was extremely innovative in a sense when we started, kind of old news,” Collins said slowly over a recent lunch at Trumps.

He laughed as he recalled the coincidence of the tabloid theme. “It seems that the viewing public and producers of those programs have tapped into this insatiable desire for stronger formats, stronger issues, stronger confrontations, a stronger examination of subject matter and reality subject matter. And that was never ‘Hour Magazine.’

“So times change,” Collins continued affably, “and you have to look way back in the woods to not see that the trend’s coming.”

And what does he think of this trend? “I’m fascinated with some of the stuff. I cringe a little at some of the subject matter. . . . I won’t give you any specifics, but I have a reaction as a human being that ‘Gee, that was a little far. That was a little too close to the bone.’ ”

Collins gave the impression of choosing each word with the same care he gives to his appearance. Not a color, pattern or sandy hair flecked with gray was out of place. He insisted that he is neither angered nor worried about the cancellation, but “excited” about the “opportunities.” He had “some great meetings” with unnamed producers that very morning. Besides, he is the kind of guy who “always sees the glass as half-full and never half-empty.”

About the only note of wistfulness cropped up when Collins noted that “Hour’s” ratings in November had gone up a full Nielsen point, meaning 900,000 more viewers. “So we really felt we were on the upswing,” he said.

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Asked why he didn’t do anything to accommodate the trend, Collins replied simply and without rancor: “Because our show was never that kind of (tabloid) show, nor am I that type of host.

“Each host has had a very individual personality and that’s what separates him from the rest of the crowd,” Collins went on. Asked to define himself as a host, Collins said without hint of a boast that he was “inquisitive, sensitive, caring, likable, non-confrontational .”

“I don’t think all television has to be on that hard edge,” Collins added. “The thing that’s always separated what I do has been the confrontational element. You always knew when you watched our show, it wasn’t there. That’s basically not a part of my character.”

Indeed not. On a recent afternoon when the theme week was parents and children, Collins had as one of his guests a 20-year-old Nevada woman who was giving birth to her second child and was planning to have the baby adopted by another woman who was also on the show. There was not a tough question in sight.

Instead, Collins’ comments were optimistic and encouraging. Collins also brought on Valerie Harper and her adopted daughter.

On this show, he introduced a personal note about his daughter Clancy, a 20-year-old Stanford communications major about to take her junior year at the Sorbonne and Oxford. Every time he and his wife bring out the photo scrapbooks “within a couple of minutes Mary Ann’s in tears, and I’m running to get Kleenex,” he told viewers.

With Collins, there is the decided sense that what you see is really who he is. He said he was spending the Christmas and New Year’s holidays with Mary Ann’s grandmother and family in Mississippi. “For so many years the family came out here for the holidays, but her grandmother is 96. Unfortunately, she’s one of those seniors who has retained everything from the neck up but the body has failed. I’m not quite sure which is worse. . . . “

The Collinses’ next stop will be Africa to see friends they met while filming the 1974 TV series “Born Free,” and other friends from their work in World Vision, the Christian relief agency. “Mary Ann went to Cambodia and I went to Ethiopia for them. . . . “

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Although Collins, the son of an auto parts dealer, was born and raised in Los Angeles, he identifies himself as Midwestern and readily points out that “Hour” fared better in the middle of the country than in places like New York and Los Angeles.

“Johnny Carson is probably my all-time favorite (TV host) in the sense I feel more close to that type. My family’s from the Midwest, he’s Midwest. My family’s from Ft. Dodge, Iowa,” he said with obvious pride. “I was the first one to be born outside Iowa.”

Collins graduated from Venice High School, attended Santa Monica City College and enlisted in the Army, where he discovered acting. His Army service included a stint as announcer and disc jockey for Armed Forces Radio. Already in Europe, he got a role in “Cleopatra” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. After parts in several more movies made overseas, he went to New York and did some work in theater. In 1965 Collins landed his first starring TV series, “The Wackiest Ship in the Army.”

He welcomed the transition from acting to TV hosting. It gave him and Mary Ann a chance for “regular hours” and a more stable home life--and his wife won the option of pursuing her own acting career. In the past, she had always followed him on the road.

Over his show’s long run, Collins had a spate of celebrity guests from Nancy Reagan to Fawn Hall, but he’s most interested in talking about Laurence Olivier.

“He came on and I said, ‘I’m so impressed. Having made my living as an actor, I always looked to you and two or three others as the ultimate craftsman. I said I was ‘in awe; I don’t know what to call you, Sir Laurence or Sir Olivier and he said, ‘Just call me Larry. . . . ‘ “

He said his show also was the first of its genre to put on regular AIDS updates discussing medical developments as well as discriminatory practices.

“Most of my good moments came from putting something on the air I knew I was going to have an impact. Medical things to me were the most important. I would get so jazzed when I would do one of those things. . . . One of the strengths of this show is to bring information to the public that at its least is life-enhancing and at its best life-altering. . . . “

Collins declined to rate the likes of Oprah, Phil and Geraldo. They each have a “different style” and he does not want to talk about that either. “I respect ‘em all for what they’re doing. They’re obviously doing a bang-up job.”

Only on that word bang - up did an edge of sarcasm creep into his voice.


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