The Queen sits regally upon her throne, trying to appear more magisterial as the days pass by. Two steps below her, the Princess smiles through her gritted teeth, waiting impatiently for her turn. The Knave stays quite busy, twisting his mustache and shouting everyone down. The old Wise Man is bent low, watching the years diminish his presence.
Meanwhile, the Young Courtesans billow around, plotting their ascents and honing their fingernails for clawing their way there. And the Moneymen sit at the doors to the countinghouse, eyes firmly on the gold.
Such is the current moment in the Land of Syndicated TV Talk. Oprah Winfrey is still viewed, far and wide, as the Queen, her national ratings often double those of her nearest competitor. More often than not, that nearest competitor is Ricki Lake, the Princess, whose appeal to a younger audience has fueled her meteoric rise.
The perennial Knave, Geraldo Rivera, is the loudest and busiest guy in the business, mixing his syndicated daily show with periodic specials and a CNBC nightly news-oriented talk show and, for once, turning down something in August: the anchor spot on "A Current Affair."
Phil Donahue, the revered Wise Man, may find that his 29th year in the business will be his last, as his ratings plummeted 31% last season and he has no outlets in New York and San Francisco, the Nos. 1 and 5 markets.
And a flock of Young Courtesans has entered the scene this fall, hoping for the ratings of Oprah, the panache of Ricki, the energy of Geraldo and the staying power of Donahue.
Their names are Tempestt and Carnie, Mark and Danny and Gabrielle, and they want to grab your attention right quick. For if they don't, they may soon be replaced by Paget and Linda and Laurie and Leslie. It's a rough scene these days in the Land of Syndicated TV Talk, and there are plenty of first names to go around.
In March, 32-year-old Scott Amedure was shot and killed in Rochester, Mich. The man who surrendered and awaits trial on murder charges was John Schmitz, 24, who had found out three days earlier during a taping of "Jenny Jones" that Amedure had a crush on him. The assertion by authorities that Schmitz had been misled about why he was invited to be on the program--denied by the producers--prompted a Niagara-like flow of stories in the weeks following that recounted various sordid details of the talk show world and, by association, the gullible nature of its audience.
Among the allegations were that some shows used guests who were lying about their afflictions, that producers lied to guests to get them to come on the air and then surprised them with embarrassing revelations, that certain guests appeared over and over again on different shows. "Are Talk Shows Out of Control?" TV Guide asked in April. The most common description of these daily showcases of confrontation and rancor: freak shows.
But here we are mere months later and the syndicated talk shows are no less popular and barely changed. In fact, more and more entries are panting to get on the air. The topics of the shows appear to be no less salacious than before the uproar caused by the Amedure shooting. Despite claims by some producers that they are going "upscale" this season, consider this lineup on a typical day in mid-September:
* "Maury Povich": prostitute patrons.
* "Sally Jessy Raphael": runaway teen's mother.
* "Gabrielle": clueless men.
* "Tempestt": abusive boyfriends.
* "Gordon Elliott": bisexuals.
* "Danny!": the races and body image.
* "Mark Walberg": stale love lives.
It certainly wasn't always this way.
"To even compare what is being done on today's talk shows to what we did originally with 'Donahue' is appalling," said Richard Mincer, "Donahue's" first executive producer, who spent 18 years with the show. He is now senior producer for the "Rush Limbaugh" television show. "The thing that bothers me the most is that you don't know whether the stories are true or not once some guests admit that they really didn't do what they said. It can destroy the credibility of all talk shows.
"If you go back to our first years, sure, we did fun things, but mostly we did issues and had serious interviews," Mincer said. "The craziness started three or four years ago, I believe, when someone did one of these perverted kinds of shows and looked at some good overnight ratings, saying, 'My God, look at this!' There was a market, and it's sad [that] people want to exploit it."
Burt Dubrow has watched the evolution even longer. During the 1970s, he worked on "The Mike Douglas Show" out of Philadelphia. Today he is the creator and consulting executive producer of "Sally Jessy Raphael" and consulting executive producer of "Jerry Springer" and oversees "Donahue" as vice president of programming for Multimedia Inc.
"The trend was entertainment and fluff kinds of things. The competition was 'Merv Griffin' and 'David Frost,' " said Dubrow, noting that even then, it was important to have the name of the host in the show title. "In the late 1980s, probably because of Oprah, everyone got more substantive and no one cared about what movie someone was plugging," he said. "We started having talk shows with all kinds of interesting things: life itself instead of show business."
One might contend that because of syndicated talk shows, life itself has become show business. And the trend doesn't look like it's slowing down.
'I t's hard to get a grip on what's going on out there," said David Sittenfeld, the executive producer of "The Richard Bey Show." " 'Carnie' is the same show as 'Walberg,' and 'Ricki' is the same show as 'Tempestt.' You add the shows back from last season, and they're all cannibalizing each other. Very few will survive past this season."
Indeed, the wave of new syndicated TV talk shows in recent years appears to be at a monumental crest. Five new entries have joined the 14 returning national daily shows that the Nielsen ratings categorize under "conversation." Even if you take out obvious anomalies such as "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee" and "Rush Limbaugh," you are left with a frightening panoply of choices. The span often seems only to range from A to B and back again, but it can be broken down roughly this way:
"Oprah Winfrey" has gone into more mainstream topics--child safety, pregnancy information, shopping tips--and is joined in the comparatively upscale group by "Donahue," "Sally Jessy Raphael" and, to a certain extent, "Geraldo" and "Maury Povich."
On the far end of the scale are the shows that seem to be verging on the prurient nearly every day, led by "Jerry Springer" and "Jenny Jones" and, to some degree, "Montel Williams" and "Rolanda."
In the middle are two groups. There is the you-can't-take-this-all-that-seriously crew, made up of male hosts: "Richard Bey," "Gordon Elliott" and new entries "Mark Walberg" (starring a former ESPN and cable game announcer) and "Danny!" (with former "Partridge Family" kiddie star Danny Bonaduce at the helm).
Finally, there are the young-and-the-teary, almost entirely female-hosted, led by "Ricki Lake" and followed by newcomers "Charles Perez," "Tempestt" (with former "Cosby" kid Tempestt Bledsoe), "Gabrielle" (with "Beverly Hills, 90210" veteran Gabrielle Carteris) and "Carnie" (with singer Carnie Wilson).
Why have the floodgates of talk opened? The reason, as usual in the television landscape, is money.
"It only takes a couple of ratings points for a syndicator to sell time off of," said Tim Bennett, a former Capital Cities/ABC executive who is now president of Winfrey's Harpo Productions. "They saw the success of 'Donahue' and 'Oprah' and are trying to reach for the star up there. They also realize that with talk shows, just doing them in a studio, the costs are minimal."
A few years back, merely throwing a show up on the board would have gotten you Bennett's magical "couple of ratings points" (each ratings point is equal to 1% of American homes with televisions, or 959,000 homes this season). But six of the 20 syndicated talk shows measured nationally by Nielsen last year didn't even do that: MCA-TV's "Suzanne Somers," Multimedia's "Dennis Prager" and "Susan Powter," Group W's "Jones and Jury" and "Marilu," and Tribune Entertainment's "Charles Perez Show." Only Perez, the highest-rated of the above with a 1.4, is back, primarily because he only started in March and because he is the only one of the six with a young profile.
All five of this fall's new shows feature hosts who are 35 and younger. Even the two over 30, Carteris and Bonaduce, achieved their previous fame by playing kids on network TV series, so their image is youthful.
The plan for each of these new shows is to beat "Ricki Lake" at the youth game. In her first season two years ago, Lake managed to slither into eighth place in the syndicated talk Nielsens, yet her 3.5 rating was a mere pimple on "Oprah's" 9.3. Last season, Lake zoomed into second place with a 5.2, while Winfrey dropped 10% to an 8.1. Oprah still has a commanding lead, but it is clear to syndicators that the future is in youth, since Lake and the young-skewing "Jenny Jones" (third with a 4.6 rating last year) had the biggest ratings gains.
The old hands are, as you might expect, rather cynical about the upstarts.
"Three or four shows stand out, I'd say: 'Sally,' 'Oprah,' 'Donahue,' 'Geraldo,' " said Martin Berman, who is in charge of production for Tribune Entertainment's "Geraldo" and "Charles Perez." "All of these new freshman shows are going after the same demographic, so narrowly focused. The subjects are a very narrow slice of life. All of them are doing the same thing, which means 'Geraldo' looks unique. We don't have to change a lick."
"Danny, Mark, Carnie, Tempestt, they're all doing the same sort of thing, and it's going to get tired pretty quickly," said Multimedia's Dubrow. "Ricki knew what she was doing, but the ones that copy, they don't know how. They put eight people up on home base and have them scream at each other. Is that a good talk show?"
Bennett, of "Oprah Winfrey," is worried as well about the guests of the youth-oriented talk shows.
"I've heard that show producers were encouraging guests to fabricate. And, certainly, they can find young guests who will almost say anything. They are immature and unknowing. They are flown in and given the royal treatment and say, 'Why not?'
"A few centuries ago, there was a thing that got huge ratings called the Colosseum," Bennett said. "They threw unsuspecting Christians in there, and for some that was entertaining. That to me is what is happening. Young people are being thrown out there for exploitation."
But the young hosts of the new syndicated talk shows have this to say to their elders in the business: "Lighten up!"
"All I don't want to do is make anybody sad," Bonaduce said of his new show. "I don't want to go, 'Hey, thanks for watching' and know somebody lost, somebody's ashamed of themselves, somebody's parents aren't going to talk to them anymore."
Said Walberg, who is not to be confused (or, maybe, subtly is) with "Marky Mark" Wahlberg, the singer and underwear model: "A lot of people say they don't want to watch trash, but then they watch trash. You've got to do certain things to get ratings. I'm not naive about that. I'm not opposed to some guy taking off his shirt. Who's getting hurt by that?"
Bonaduce, in fact, doesn't have much reverence for his forebears. Especially since, as a former kid star and tabloid-headline-maker, he has seen their dark sides.
"I do have a distinct recollection of Geraldo jumping out of my bushes [because] I wouldn't talk to him," Bonaduce said. He also said that when he appeared on "Oprah Winfrey," he was promised by producers that she wouldn't ask him about a recent arrest, which she ended up doing. (He adds, however, that "on other occasions that I have done her show, she's been very nice to me.")
In fact, Winfrey decided last season to take a new tack. Her ratings, while sliding a bit, are still high--with some of the falloff no doubt attributable to competition in major markets with the O.J. Simpson trial. Instead of playing the Ricki-alike youth game, she is striking out a bit higher.
"She said to us that after 10 years and 2,000 shows of mostly dysfunctional people, she felt it was time to start focusing on solutions," said Bennett, her production company president.
Echoing others who have criticized syndicated talk in recent years, he said: "Oprah realized most of America is not made up of these problematic folks. She's done enough shows where she's seen the problem; now it's time to communicate the solution. We used to just talk about children and guns, say, and now it's time to have shows like this with resolutions and conclusions."
Bonaduce, for one, applauds Winfrey for this: "Oprah went on, like a lot of us have, saying, 'I'm not doing this sleazy thing,' and then, of course, did. I think one day she said, 'You know what? I have enough money. I'm not doing this anymore,' and hasn't. I'm not real hip to industry stuff, but I understand it's cost her ratings in some cities. God bless her, though. So I admire her greatly."
But that similar high road may have cost Donahue his monumental run. "Donahue's" ratings slip caused San Francisco's KGO-TV to drop the show in January, and on Aug. 15, just three weeks before the fall season was to start, New York's WNBC-TV took "Donahue" off its schedule, not giving Multimedia a chance to sell it to another station. Two weeks after that, Philadelphia's KYW-TV moved the show to 1:35 a.m.
Multimedia still has another year to go on "Donahue's" deal, but the dean may soon be off the air everywhere, victim of the logical extension of the genre he all but founded.
"Phil was written about a lot when WNBC dropped him, and now business goes on as usual," said Dubrow of Multimedia, "Donahue's" distributor. "You do have to be in the major markets, so we'll just have to see."
Donahue himself hasn't talked about his show's possible demise, but even his competitors are sympathetic to his plight. "[Multimedia] is pushing Sally Jessy more and more in that [sleazy] direction, but Donahue wouldn't do it," said Sittenfeld of "Richard Bey." "Donahue is a classy guy. I find this [treatment] very disturbing."
Said "Geraldo's" Berman: "He may not be gone yet; there are some markets where he's very strong. But how it was handled in New York was shocking, an insult to the man who gave all of us life."
Everyone involved in the current shows must realize that their day too may come sooner than not. In fact, many of them have become talk show gypsies, moving from job to job, show to show. Six of the programs are produced on two blocks of West 57th Street in Manhattan, with "Carnie," "Donahue" and "Ricki Lake" only blocks away.
"It's a very attractive field for a younger person getting involved in television," Berman said. "Even four or five years ago, there were only 30 people working in talk shows in New York. Now there are 250 jobs. People who worked for me as receptionists become associate producers in a period of a year. You get to do a lot of stuff real quickly, and all of a sudden you're a producer somewhere."
Syndicators looking for room in the schedule for talk are now pitching late-night to stations. "Jenny Jones" regularly beats Jay Leno and David Letterman when they go head to head in New York between 11:35 p.m. and midnight. "Jerry Springer" sometimes bests Letterman in the same time period in Los Angeles.
"People who work all day long and don't get to see these shows are now seeing the stuff they only read about," Berman said.
One thing for sure, syndicators are not about to stop trying to find the next talk gold mine. MCA-TV will try soon to launch "He Said, She Said," with Los Angeles' Mark Thompson and Wendy Walsh, and another young-skewing talker with KTTV reporter Laurie Pike. Twentieth TV is looking for something to do with attorney Leslie Abramson. Group W, which failed with Baby Boomer Marilu Henner, is testing someone about half her age, Paget Brewster, in San Francisco.
Perhaps the strangest talk show in development is one Buena Vista is working on with Linda Richman. Richman is the mother-in-law of Mike Myers and the inspiration for his "Coffee Talk" segments on "Saturday Night Live."
Let's see, real life following fiction following real life. Gotta be a winner.
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Talk of the Town
Who's up and who's down in the roller-coaster world of talk shows? Here's the current thinking, looking at the shows in the order they've been on the air.
(down) DONAHUE: Off air in New York and San Francisco, the innovator is on his last legs.
(up) SALLY JESSY RAPHAEL: With Donahue down and all but out, she's Multimedia's "upscale" bet.
(up) OPRAH WINFREY: She's the top. She's the Tower of Pisa.
(up) GERALDO RIVERA: CNBC show gives him legit image, so long as he stays away from Al Capone and skinheads.
(even) MAURY POVICH: Seems "newsy" because of his wife, Connie Chung.
(even) JENNY JONES: Ratings held pretty steady, despite murder allegedly induced by the show.
(down) MONTEL WILLIAMS: Lost spot for his CBS prime-time drama. Is his Q-rating moving toward Z?
(down) JERRY SPRINGER: Going farther and farther to the bizarre. Cincinnati must have been a heck of a place with him as mayor.
(even) RICHARD BEY: Super-goofy on the superstation.
(up) RICKI LAKE: Grande dame of the kiddie talkers.
(down) ROLANDA: On the edge of extinction.
(down) LEEZA: Pleeza!
(down) GORDON ELLIOTT: The only tall Australian in talk. Who cares, mate?
(down) CHARLES PEREZ: Taking Geraldo's Tribune Co. leftovers won't be enough.
(down) TEMPESTT BLEDSOE: Is 22. Looks 12. Rating won't get to 2.
(up) DANNY BONADUCE: His goofy nature could just make him a hit.
(down) GABRIELLE CARTERIS: 9021-zero charisma.
(down) MARK WALBERG: Wants you to know he's not Marky Mark. That's his problem.
(up) CARNIE WILSON: Seasoned production staff, known host--makes a difference in crowded market.