Tossing Trash TV in the Garbage Can : Sponsors and local outlets are abandoning some talk shows

A number of television station managers have pulled the plug on certain syndicated afternoon talk shows, and more are threatening to do so unless early and acceptable changes are made in the programs’ content. Simultaneously several major advertisers--among them Procter & Gamble Co., Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Unilever--have, to their credit, either withdrawn or sharply cut back on their commercial support for the shows.

Most of these programs have succeeded in avoiding identification with anything that resembles good taste. In the last few years, as the boundaries of what is regarded as permissible have been stretched ever outward, the competition among talk shows to see which can descend deepest into sleaze has intensified. Under the guise of entertainment or--hold your nose--public service, the talk shows provide a daily wallow in titillation and degradation.

DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS: The stock in trade of these shows is sex and aberrant behavior, preferably linked. A new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a philanthropy that focuses on health issues, notes that a review of nearly 200 videotapes and transcripts of afternoon talk shows found that most involved incidents of “personal disclosure,” averaging a generous 16 an hour. More than half of these dealt with sex or addiction. Revelations about abuse, embarrassing situations and criminal activity made up the balance.

To spend even a few minutes with most of these programs--more than that we would not advise--is usually to enter a world of exhibitionism where civility and morality are alien. Guests on these shows seem heavily tilted toward people with spiky blue hair and metal rings piercing strange parts of their bodies. Confrontation is loutish, antagonistic, heavy on humiliation and often physical. Women slap each other, wrestle, pull hair. Men often threaten violence and sometimes commit it. Discussion is loud, abusive, often--bleep--profane. The audience is usually encouraged to join in.


Last month a number of prominent Americans, including former Education Secretary William Bennett, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and C. DeLores Tucker, chairwoman of the National Political Congress of Black Women, called on Americans to express their disgust with trash television. “It’s time,” said Lieberman, “for a revolt of the revolted.” The aim of these and other critics is not to force these programs off the air. It’s to put public pressure on them to clean up their product.

A MATTER OF VALUES: In this case, unhappily, pressure is more likely to involve decisions made by advertisers and station managers than choices made by viewers. For the fact is there’s a substantial audience for this kind of sensationalism--including, disturbingly, a lot of kids home from school. That lets those responsible for the programs claim they are only giving the public what it wants. An old defense, of course, that proves nothing. Program ratings and socially redeeming qualities are often inverse.

Putting on pressure to change the shamelessly prurient and voyeuristic nature of talk show programming is not censorship or puritanism; it’s an assertion of the civilized values that define our social aspirations. The airwaves belong to the people, and the people comprise many audiences. There is room for programming that is diverse, entertaining, informative, controversial, that appeals to mass as well as selective audiences. There is scope for discussions of dysfunctional behavior. But there’s also, we think, a social imperative to maintain a certain basic level of taste and civility in programming. The talk shows we’ve been talking about, fixated on the grotesque and the perverse, don’t come close to approaching the minimum level.