"It didn't send a shiver, but we all felt sadness," talk-show host Charles Perez says, referring to the reaction of his staff when they learned about a killing last week that authorities said stemmed from an encounter on the "Jenny Jones" show. But Perez refuses to let his business take the blame for the fatal reaction one guest allegedly had to the surprise revelation that he had a homosexual secret admirer.
"I just don't think this is a commentary about talk shows," he says. "It has more to do with the degree of hatefulness in the world we live in. We don't play with danger any more than any tabloid show."
Another talk-show host, Jerry Springer, similarly says that news reporters who surprise people with a microphone following a tragedy are just as potentially guilty in "ambushing" someone into violent action.
"The news tends to exploit people every day," he says. "When we (on talk shows) have people on, it's only because they want to be on."
So goes the "not me" reaction this week on Talk-Show Row, an area on and around West 57th Street here where shows like Perez's, Geraldo Rivera's, Sally Jessy Raphael's, Montel Williams', Ricki Lake's, Gordon Elliott's, Maury Povich's and Rolonda Watts' are taped before live audiences.
Yes, inside that phenomenally successful world, the talk--at least publicly--has stopped. The official reaction, when there has been one at all, is that the case of the Michigan man accused of shooting a gay man who a few days earlier had surprised him on "Jenny Jones" is an isolated incident and that most shows, even when they do such "surprise" episodes, inform their guests--up to a point--what they can expect.
But privately, there is some buzz among, and between, the shows that perhaps this is the time to come up with a set of guidelines that more clearly delineate what should and shouldn't be done.
"This is a challenge, a wake-up call," says host Rolonda Watts. "We've got to find new and creative ways of treating our subjects."
The killing in Rochester, Mich., follows several other controversies stemming from talk shows recently: Rivera is being sued by an adopted soap opera star who was most unpleasantly reunited with his real mother on the show; Montel Williams got caught presenting a "serial rapist" whom authorities said later was a phony; Williams' producers settled out of court with a guest who sued for the pain suffered when her sister told her on the air that she'd been sleeping with her boyfriend of 14 years, and there have been accusations that some shows use actors to portray guests.
Whether it's too late to turn back, however, is another issue, what with about 20 national talk shows airing in syndication, a slew more coming in the fall, and all kinds of new and changing gimmicks that have added to the overall frenzy of such programs.
One of the biggest changes has been in the live audience, which used to be a relatively passive participant. Now, with actual warm-ups preceding the programs (similar to a sitcom, for example), the audience is encouraged to take a much more active pro-and-con stance.
"We tell them they're not here for 'Meet the Press,' " explains Amy Rosenblum, senior producer of "Sally Jessy Raphael," "and that they should get involved. I'd say half the show is now the audience, and a quiet one can ruin the show."
But a vocal one can intimidate or humiliate a particularly vulnerable or unstable guest.
"People who go on those shows have a strong need to tell their story and they feel they will be understood and vindicated," explains Santa Monica-based psychiatrist Roger Gould. "But there's a big difference between 2 million viewers from whom they get no feedback and a handful of intensely opinionated people in the same room. The latter might make a fragile ego feel more ashamed."
Other key changes in talk shows of late include more guests, more interaction among them, gimmicks such as soundproof booths, and tabloidlike titles ("Lose Weight or Lose Me," "I Treat Men Like Dirt but They Keep Coming Back for More").
"When I worked on the 'Donahue' show, we had three guests and an expert," notes Gail Steinberg, now an executive producer of "The Ricki Lake Show." "Now we have an average 12 to 14 guests per hour and we speed up the pace. We've also redirected the action so they talk to each other rather than the host, so you get little dramas within each show."
Another key change is the virtual lack of news-related stories--once the staple of such shows--with the possible exception of sensational ones such as O.J. Simpson or Susan Smith, the mother charged with drowning her two children.
"When Phil was all alone out there, there were shows on things like Pentagon overspending, but Oprah changed the street we all live on," says Steinberg. "Suddenly, relationship shows became the norm and she did them up close and personal. That's when the explosion really hit."
Ironically, while Oprah Winfrey may have changed the tenor of the shows, last year she announced she was going to head back in the other direction, trading in the freakish for the uplifting, even relevant. Everyone in the business is quick to point out that her ratings have dropped noticeably since that decision while others' ratings have gone up.
Rolonda Watts' show was on the brink of being canceled a few months ago when she was persuaded to get with the raunchier stuff (only a year old, the show now ranks No. 5 of the group).
"Hey, I started off doing gun control and child welfare reform," says Watts, a former news reporter, "and the audience said, 'If we want to watch that stuff, we'll wait for the news.' It's been hard for me to swallow but I've accepted the fact (that) I'm now in the entertainment business. They want sex, they want excitement and they want energy."
Those in the business of analyzing trends don't see the talk-show craze ending with last week's tragedy. Rather they see it as part of a larger scenario.
"There's nothing that is sacred and can't be talked about anymore," says Watts Wacker, a futurist with Yankelovich Partners, a polling and market-research group. "Add to that the general feeling of anxiety in these times, wherein people like seeing those who are worse off than they are.
"We all are operating from the premise that we've been taken advantage of," continues Wacker, "and so we've gone from the 'me ethic' to the 'victim ethic.' The talk shows feed right into that. Also, the country has long been without strong leaders, so Phil and Oprah have become the leaders for a lot of people."
That being the case, the public apparently will have to rely on talk-show hosts, producers and station executives to exercise caution and responsibility as they battle for ratings and potentially huge profits ($50 million to $60 million a year for a hit show).
"You have to consider what is the potential for emotional upheaval," says Marilyn Kagan, a licensed therapist who also hosts her own talk show on KCAL-TV Channel 9 in Los Angeles. "It all comes down to intent. If you want a guest to look embarrassed and shamed, then you will have to take the consequences."
So far, the hosts refuse to admit that the guests are even as "borderline" as they seem to be to many viewers.
"This talk about weirdos on talk shows is bull," says Perez. "As talk shows have evolved, they've become more normal. They've become places where regular people go to air their problems."
Times staff writer Greg Braxton contributed to this report.