THE CULTURE WARS : Audience Stays Superior to the Exploitalk Shows

Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood." His new book is "Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity" (Knopf)

How the producers of "The Jenny Jones Show" must have grieved. Here, for a segment entitled "Secret Admirers," they had surprised a guest expecting to meet a female admirer by springing a male acquaintance instead. The guest fumed in embarrassment. Three days later, he killed the admirer. Naturally, the producers made professions of regret, but one suspects what they really regretted was the murderer's indecency of not having pulled out his rifle and committed the crime before their cameras. Now, there would have been a ratings coup.

Imprecations of depravity rain down on the multitude of exploitalk shows, including "Jenny Jones," "The Ricki Lake Show," "Jerry Springer," "Sally Jessie Raphael," "The Montel Williams Show," "The Maury Povich Show," "Charles Perez," "Rolanda," even "Donahue" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show." For many, they represent not only the nadir of television, but the nadir of our entire popular culture. And the programs themselves do not seem to demur. A recent segment of "The Richard Bey Show" trumpeted a contest of drag queens "so crazy you'll think this is sick," and "Jenny Jones" solicits its guests by asking: "Is your real-life story better than fiction?" One presumes she is not talking about Tolstoy.

Still, the programs proliferate like mayflies, audiences keep growing and profits reportedly exceed $50 million a year for a successful show. More, the higher-toned ones such as "Donahue" and "Oprah," which at least purported to relate to such real-life problems as obesity or infidelity, are losing viewers to the more salacious ones, which have no relationship whatsoever to everyday life--unless you live in "Melrose Place."

The question now being asked in the wake of the "Jenny Jones" murder is: What satisfaction does the public find in this sort of program? One simple explanation, of course, is that we are becoming progressively more decadent and more voyeuristic. The titillating entertainment these programs provide certainly supports that. But another explanation, one not mutually exclusive with the first, is that these programs constitute more than a joy ride. They are a ritual of debasement--one that, for all the cries of amorality leveled against it, may not be liberal and anomic but actually conservative and moralistic.

Start with the participants. It isn't hard to see why they appear. The so-called guests are ostensibly the shows' stars--they get to perform their lives without having to possess the talent we usually require of stars. Their talent is either having committed some transgression or having been transgressed against--and then willingly appearing before an audience of millions to share it. The more open, the more hostile, the better. They are the apotheosis of what the cultural critic Richard Sennett once termed the "ideology of intimacy." They let us into their lives, forfeiting their privacy and propriety, because their intimacies are all they have to share, all they have to barter for our interest.

But if this is the "ideology of intimacy" gone haywire, it is also the culture of celebrity gone haywire. Even a few years ago, we wouldn't have cared about the degradations of someone who wasn't a star, unless the degradations were so egregious that they constituted news for the tabloids--say, cannibalism. Now, depravity has been democratized, and with it, celebrity. It is open to anyone who wants to bask in his or her 20 minutes in the celebrity sun--as long as he or she has committed incest or dated a son or daughter's boyfriend/girlfriend or is married to three women. On the exploitalk shows, it is always man bites dog.

What they seem to be selling, first and foremost, is perverse spectacle. All these programs look and sound identical. There sit the guests, usually in pairs, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, strung across the stage in their chairs, snarling at one another, flinging insults that bring oooh's and aaaah's from the studio audience and repeated beeps from the censor. There is the moderator, prowling the audience, his or her face a canvas of incredulity as he or she interrogates the guests and tries sweet reason on them. And there is the audience, screaming like Romans at gladiatorial combat or, handed the microphone, dispensing advice or passing judgments. On good days, there is physical assault.

Some compare this to soap opera played out in real life, without the temporizing effect of the soap stars' beauty or the teleplay writer's form. Others compare it to bear-baiting--and guests do often seem defenseless, facing the camera and the hostile audience with a deer-in-the-headlights blankness, as if fame were more than they bargained for. Still others might compare it to professional wrestling, with its Manichean presentation of good and evil, its jeering audience and the complicity between those who perform and those who watch--the sense that both are locked in an extravagant performance in an age when life itself is performance art.

The exploitalk show has elements of each and it has devolved from still other forms, such as the old Joe Pyne and Alan Burke shows, where guests were routinely excoriated by the hosts, or "Queen for a Day," where domestic tragedy was paraded for entertainment. But exploitalk is its own genre--more lurid than soap opera, more titillating than bear-baiting, more vicious than professional wrestling.

The basis of the exploitalk genre, more than sordidness, is victimization. Watch enough of these shows, and you quickly identify the guest profile: lower-middle class or jobless, white trash or black or Latino, young. These are not people with whom suburban middle-class housewives, presumably the core audience for these shows, can identify. These poor folk, desperate for attention, are part of a psychological freak show, exhibiting their deformities for attention. They are fodder--and victims.

What the freaks convey, besides their own pathos, and what the shows purvey, besides their own depravity, is a world of moral disintegration. This is America's sick underbelly that the programs happily broadcast. This is the new America, where there are no moral coordinates, only license and dissolution. This is the America where the lives of some are juicy entertainment for the rest.

So when critics scold that these shows contribute to degeneracy, they may be missing the point. These shows create an continuing sense of degeneracy for the viewer, without implicating the viewer in it. The degeneracy is always kept at arm's length--the viewer's arm.

That's because the real point of identification on these shows is not the guest--it is the studio audience. This audience offers empathy and redemption. They can tell the freaks how they ought to behave to achieve normality or, at least, relief, because, in the world of exploitalk, every viewer is a junior Dr. Joyce Brothers. It offers them hope.

But whatever the audience offers, it offers on its own terms--the audience as moral executioner, as redeemer in a world gone rotten. The audience reigns supreme. The freaks can only sit there, sometimes snapping back, more often whining, before yielding to tomorrow's new crew. They are daily sacrificed to the larger, middle-class good.

Television is primarily a medium of reassurance. Standard TV drama ends in triumph, with the heroes out to do battle next week. Standard situation comedy ends with the week's problem neatly resolved and protagonists ready to conquer a new problem. Exploitalk programs make a stab at reassurance, too. Jerry Springer or Ricki Lake try to reconcile the angry, heal the emotionally wounded. Springer, a former mayor of Cincinnati, even delivers a homily at show's end, offering a fake moral dimension.

But while guests shout or simmer as the credits roll, the audience knows these people will soon return to their sordid lives--which may, after all, be the deeper reassurance: the reassurance of our superiority over the guests and over the programs themselves. It is a bad, sick world out there--but it is not our world. It is theirs. Take that continual reassurance and throw in a big dose of old-fashioned voyeurism, and you don't wonder why people watch this. Where else can one get cheap thrills and comfort, too?

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