Three Major Subgenres

Three major subgenres of television talk developed specific identities over time: the late-night entertainment talk show (modeled on The Tonight Show of Steve Allen and Jack Paar, 1954-1961), the daytime audience-participation talk show (modeled on The Phil Donahue Show, 1967-1995), and the morning magazine-format show (modeled on the first Today show of Dave Garroway, 1952-1959). Because of their prominence, these subgenres have influenced many other forms of talk on television and are the focus of this book.

The Late-Night Entertainment Talk Show

This is the subgenre that many people picture when they think of talk shows—a celebrity host chatting with one guest, possibly with other guests seated nearby. The celebrity chat show takes on different characteristics depending upon the time of day it is broadcast. The late-night version is based on congenial, playful encounters between guests and the host, who is more often than not a singer or comedian. The late-night entertainment talk/variety show became dominant on network television in the 1950s with Broadway Open House and The Tonight Show, and in the 1960s Tonight became the flagship late-night talk program of NBC. The audience for late night increased during the late 1960s and early 1970s with the publicity of the first late-night talk-show wars between Tonight host Johnny Carson and his competitors. David Letterman brought a new sensibility to the subgenre with his program following Carson's on NBC in the late-night program schedule of the 1980s. Drawing on the earlier comedy talk traditions of Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen, Letterman's version of late-night entertainment talk, which played with the talk show as a form, became increasingly mainstream through the 1980s. Later, Jay Leno and others integrated Letter-man's innovations into the more traditional elements of Carson's format. With many contenders entering and leaving late-night talk, but only a few holding steady, the late-night entertainment talk show grew steadily in popularity among viewers throughout its first five decades on the air.

The Daytime Audience-Participation Show

This format, founded by Phil Donahue in 1967 in Dayton, Ohio, and based on Donahue's earlier hot-topic radio call-in show (Conversation Piece, 1963-1967), made the studio audience a full participant by putting the audience in direct dialogue with guest experts or celebrities. Donahue's young production team was willing to try new approaches to reach a largely female audience at home during the day. Donahue pio neered the role of the host as a peripatetic mediator who stirs a live studio audience to question and speak up to celebrities and experts. Donahue's commercial success in national syndication in the 1970s and 1980s spawned many imitators. His competition with Oprah Winfrey in the mid- and late 1980s brought new viewers, publicity, and attention to the form. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, the intermittent public-service orientation of daytime talk shows like Donahue's was supplanted by the purely entertainment-oriented commercial values of tabloid shows like Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer, and other forms of "reality-based" talk programming.

The Early-Morning News Talk Magazine Show

Whether presenting news or entertainment, every television talk show that rose to prominence in the first decades of television was influenced by the time of day it was offered and the audience it appealed to at that time of day (what programmers call "the day part"). The morning show provides a good example of the trial-and-error method by which talk subgenres emerged in their respective time periods.

By the late 1940s, radio had a wide variety of talk formats in the morning, but television was just beginning to experiment with early morning viewers. Television still reached a limited number of households, and there was not much programming of any kind on television in the morning in 1947-1948. In 1948, however, NBC scheduled a popular morning radio talk couple, Tex and Jinx, at 1 p.m., then the earliest hour on the TV schedule. By fall 1948 the fourth TV network, DuMont, began to experiment with a series of variety and informational shows that aired before noon. CBS began its first morning TV programming with Two Sleepy People, starring Mike Wallace and Buff Cobb.8 These experiments in early-morning programming took lasting form in January 1952 with the creation of The Today Show with host Dave Garro-way, under programming chief Pat Weaver's direction, on NBC. Arthur Godfrey's daytime program, Arthur Godfrey Time, began on CBS the same week, with both hosts going on to become founders of television talk and creating major profit centers for their networks.

By the end of the 1950s, most of network television's major subgenres were in place, though occasionally new formats emerged out of syndication (The Phil Donahue Show, 1967), cable (Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, 1993), or independent network competition (Fox Broadcasting's Fox in the Morning, 1996-1997, which attempted to update the early-morning talk magazine for an MTV audience). New forms of TV talk are rare. Instead, talk subgenres are periodically modified or brought up to date within each cycle of television industry practice.

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