The discussion of the convergence of news and entertainment, fiction and reality on television in the 1990s concludes this fifty-year survey of the history of the TV talk show. This history has been designed to provide an overview of TV talk's unspoken rules, forms, and landmark figures, to describe the guiding principles of the TV talk show as they have evolved historically, and to provide a historical base for defining the TV talk show as a genre. In addition to close-ups, profiles, and case studies, the book explores the cultural role of the talk show in the United States as it both reflects and shapes public opinion.
Through a decade-by-decade description of five major cycles in the development of the TV talk show, we see how developments in TV talk were closely linked to developments within the television industry itself. Understanding the historical development of TV talk's unspoken rules, the social and economic forces that have shaped those rules, and the power the genre has to shape public opinion gives us a clearer understanding of what unites all TV talk shows. A periodic history of television talk helps us to see that the talk show is more than a simple personality-driven form of entertainment, that it is, in fact, a highly refined genre.
Certain talk-show hosts—the "auteurs" of television talk programming—appear as representatives of their audiences in ways that parallel elected political figures. In each decade, in both news and comedy, major talk-show hosts have come to represent the audience's "common sense'' in public news and public humor. These hosts have become formative cultural figures.1
TV talk shows are now very much a part of the social matrix of our times. They parallel, reflect, or mirror social change. At times, they serve to balance or counterpoint changes in society. The 1950s, for example, described so frequently as an era of conformity and corporate homogeneity, brought American television viewers a series of strong-minded, flamboyant, and very independent and individualistic talkshow hosts: Murrow, Godfrey, Garroway, Francis, Wallace, and Paar. One by one, as the next decade approached, the founders of TV talk from the 1950s departed from the scene as network executives reasserted control over their shows. Only a few talk-show stars, tough negotiators operating within profitable network vehicles, survived. The hosts of the 1950s were removed by the networks for the same qualities of independence and feistiness that had made them stars in the era of strong sponsors. Indeed during much of the 1960s, when the civil rights movement, the youth movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the early women's movement gained headlines, TV remained bland as the networks clamped down on controversy and dissent.
If the changes in the TV talk show of the late 1960s and early 1970s were not a matter of simple audience reaction to talk personalities, what did precipitate the changes? Three factors contributed: technological and economic shifts, new forces of competition within the television industry, and ideological splits within society. The big three networks were initiating hardly any new shows by the end of the 1960s, but national syndicators outside the networks quadrupled the output of TV talk at the end of the decade. The social and cultural ferment the networks nervously attempted to contain spilled over into syndication, and at times into late-night fringe time slots as well. Audiences were looking for escape, but they were also hungry for comedy and debate about the topics of the times: the "counterculture," the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and the women's movement. This period coincided with sitcoms that often looked like talk shows (All in the Family, 1970-1979), and with the highly publicized late-night talk-show wars from 1967 to 1972 between Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, David Frost, and Dick Cavett. These talk-show "wars" represented competing talk-show personalities, but they also represented conflicts in popular ideology. Carson and Cavett, for example, represented distinctly different points of view in the talk worlds they shaped and inhabited.
The 1970s were transitional for political, economic, and cultural institutions in the United States, and the television networks faced their own ''legitimation crisis'' in the political and legal turmoil of the Watergate era. Johnny Carson's reassertion of dominance in late-night television by the mid-1970s paralleled the U.S. government's reestablishment of its authority after Watergate, and though much of this may have been historical coincidence, television's exercise of power as a fifth estate was not. The nation watched television screens more and more as sets converted to color and the Vietnam War became a living-room war, contested in words and images as well as armaments. In the late 1960s and 1970s new technologies of production (cheaper television studios and lower production costs), new methods of distribution (satellite transmission and cable), and key regulatory decisions made nationally syndicated talk increasingly attractive to investors and opened up room for innovative hosts and formats like those of Phil Donahue in syndication and Bill Moyers on public television. Television became increasingly, during this time, the ''talk of the nation.''
In the 1980s and early 1990s, corporate takeovers and the deregulation of the Reagan and Bush administrations, combined with a willingness of advertisers to support hosts who appealed to racial minorities and new demographics, encouraged a range of new nationally syndicated shows with sensational topics, relationship themes, and ethnic hosts. Sally Jessy Raphaël, Geraldo Rivera, and Oprah Winfrey became national figures. National political campaigns contributed to the new prominence of talk shows. The 1992 Presidential contest between Democrat Bill Clinton, Republican incumbent George Bush, and independent H. Ross Perot paralleled the battle between late-night entertainment hosts for the time slot vacated by Carson. The second late-night talk-show war of 1992 and 1993 reflected the issues spotlighted by the 1992 national elections. A generational shift occurred in late-night and daytime TV talk (from Carson to Letterman and Leno, from Donahue to Ricki Lake) at approximately the same time it was occurring at the ballot box during the 1992 political campaign. In 1992 Democratic candidate Bill Clinton defeated George Bush and Ross Perot, with all the candidates attempting to parley talk-show appearances into votes. Some called Clinton the first talk-show President as viewers saw news and entertainment converge more and more on national television screens.
From the founders of the 1950s, through the institutionalization of major talk subgenres on network shows in the 1960s, through the experiments of syndicated talk entrepreneurs of the 1970s and 1980s, and finally through the work of innovators, blenders, and synthesizers of the 1990s, the TV talk show has been constantly evolving. It sometimes reflects and sometimes counterpoints the surrounding social environment. Though it normally takes place within the confines of a television studio, TV talk is always directed to a mass audience outside the studio. TV talk reflects a dual consciousness in this sense. It is both private and public, personal and mass. The talk show is a porous genre in a porous medium,2 absorbing everything that comes its way: the economic climate, commercial trends and fashions, political and social movements. The talk show establishes new social rituals. As Michael Arlen has pointed out, talk shows maintain an almost obsessive form of television sociability at a time when traditional forms of hospitality are on the wane.3 Videotape has made it possible to capture these sociable word rituals, and enjoy, analyze, and study them as social documents.
The survival of talk worlds past and present poses a special challenge for those who preserve, study, and interpret human communication. How can historical studies place the TV talk show in the context of earlier traditions of public talk? How can text studies by critics and scholars trained in film and other disciplines enable viewers to understand subtle but crucial distinctions that camera and direction make in the rhetoric of the TV talk show? In what ways can skillful editors putting together video compilations, commentaries, and critiques compare and contrast TV talk worlds from the same and different periods of television history? Such compilations and critiques would undoubtedly give us a more direct appreciation of what made certain hosts, guests, and talk worlds compelling for their viewers. How can political economy and technology studies further our knowledge of this unique form of public talk at the end of the twentieth century? There is much work to do in studying and coming to terms with the contemporary television talk show, and this work is situated within a growing media literacy movement that attempts to counter the power of the media by educating citizens to understand its forms.
To paraphrase W. E. B. Du Bois, the question of media literacy may turn out to be one of the fundamental questions of the twenty-first century. To the extent that this book encourages more specific understanding and active engagement with a form of television that affects so many of us, it joins a much larger media literacy movement: a movement to understand the power of the media that politically, economically, and culturally shape our future.
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