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Freaks talk back by Joshua Gamson: scholarly text about tabloid talk shows.
Tabloid talk shows are a genre of American television talk-shows that achieved peak viewership during the late 20th century. Airing mostly during the day and distributed mostly through syndication, this genre originated with The Phil Donahue Show and was popularized by the personal confession-filled Oprah Winfrey Show.Tabloid talk shows have sometimes been described as the "freak shows" of the late 20th century since most of their guests were outside the mainstream. The host invites a group of guests to discuss an emotional or provocative topic—ranging from marital infidelity to more outlandish topics—and the guests are encouraged to make public confessions and resolve their problems with on-camera "group therapy". Similar shows are popular throughout Europe.

The genre is sometimes described using the pejorative slang term "trash TV", particularly when the show hosts appear to purposely design their shows to create controversy or confrontation, as in the case of Geraldo (a 1988 show in which racist skinheads and Jewish activists were invited led to an on-camera brawl) and The Jerry Springer Show, which focused on lurid trysts - often between family members. While sociologist Vicki Abt criticized tabloid TV shows, claiming that they are blurring the lines between normal and deviant behavior, Yalemarker sociology professor Joshua Gamson argues that the genre's focus on sexual orientation provided a great deal of media visibility for gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transgender people.


Tabloid talk shows began in 1970 with Phil Donahue, as host of The Phil Donahue Show. Donahue began to push the envelope with the discussion of topics deemed to be taboo such as atheism and homosexuality. Donahue also distinguished himself from traditional talk shows by being the first to get off the stage, and take his microphone directly into the studio audience. For over a decade, Donahue's was the only show of this kind, and so tabloid talk shows had not yet been described as a genre, lucrative industry, or counterculture movement. All of that changed in 1986 when a relatively unknown 32 year old woman named Oprah Winfrey became the first broadcaster able to challenge Donahue in the ratings. Winfrey's show quickly doubled Donahue's audience as her personal confessions and focus on therapy were seen by many as redefining the format.

Time magazine wrote, "Guests with sad stories to tell are apt to rouse a tear in Oprah's eye....They, in turn, often find themselves revealing things they would not imagine telling anyone, much less a national TV audience. It is the talk show as a group therapy session."By confessing intimate details about her weight problems, tumultuous love life, and sexual abuse, and crying alongside her guests, Time Magazine credits Winfrey with creating a new form of media communication known as "rapport talk" as distinguished from the "report talk" of Phil Donahue:

"Winfrey saw television's power to blend public and private; while it links strangers and conveys information over public airwaves, TV is most often viewed in the privacy of our homes. Like a family member, it sits down to meals with us and talks to us in the lonely afternoons. Grasping this paradox, ...She makes people care because she cares. That is Winfrey's genius, and will be her legacy, as the changes she has wrought in the talk show continue to permeate our culture and shape our lives."

Winfrey continued Donahue's pattern of exploring topics that were at the time considered taboo. For an entire hour in the 1980s, members of the studio audience stood up one by one, gave their name and announced that they were gay. Also in the 1980s Winfrey took her show to West Virginia to confront a town gripped by AIDS paranoia because a gay man living in the town had HIV. Winfrey interviewed the man who had become a social outcast, the town's mayor who drained the swimming pool because the man had gone swimming, and debated the town's hostile residents. "But I hear this is a God fearing town" Winfrey scolded the homophobic studio audience, "where's all that Christian love and understanding?" During a show on gay marriage in the 1990s, a woman in Winfrey's audience stood up to complain that gays were constantly flaunting their sex lives and she announced that she was tired of it. "You know what I'm tired of," replied Winfrey, "heterosexual males raping and sodomizing young girls. That's what I'm tired of." Her rebuttal inspired a screaming standing ovation from that show's mostly gay studio audience.

Guests included Neo Nazis, polygamous men and their partners, and Black and Jewish activists. By the fourth season, a show was dedicated to guests who claimed they had seen Elvis Presley alive in a variety of different locations throughout the country, with one man revealing to the host that he talked to the singer in his local Burger King.Oprah's best friend, the former news anchor and talk show host Gayle King said during an A&E profile on Winfrey in 2003 that when they recently looked back at an episode list of the first six seasons, Oprah could not believe she used to host such provocative shows. With titles such as "I'm a Cross-Dresser" and "Priestly Sins", King believed the topics "didn't seem so sleazy" when Oprah did them.

After Oprah

scholarly text about the post-Oprah era.
Soon many imitators began to appear, and by the time word spread that Winfrey had negotiated the most lucrative deal in television (a deal that would eventually make her the richest African American of the 20th century and the world's only black billionaire for three straight years), the industry exploded with copycats, each competing to be more edgy and provocative than the one before. In 1991, Jerry Springer debuted The Jerry Springer Show, Jenny Jones debuted The Jenny Jones Show, Maury Povich debuted The Maury Povich Show, and Montel Williams debuted The Montel Williams Show. In 1993, Ricki Lake debuted her own show. With the abundance of these new shows, each of them was forced to compete with each other for higher ratings and higher ad revenues. This led the shows to topics considered outrageous in an attempt to keep viewers tuned in.

Trash TV

The genre is sometimes described using the pejorative slang term "trash TV", particularly when the show hosts appear to purposely design their shows to create controversy or confrontation. One of the earliest of the post-Oprah shows was Geraldo, which was oriented toward controversial guests and theatricality - one of the early shows was titled "Men in Lace Panties and the Women Who Love Them". Geraldo Rivera's nose was broken in a well-publicized brawl during a 1988 show, involving racist skinheads, anti-racist skinheads, and black and Jewish activists. This incident led to Newsweek's characterization of his show as "Trash TV". The term Trash TV was applied to tabloid talk shows at their most extreme. Some of the program hosts have proudly accepted the "trash" label, such as The Jerry Springer Show, while others like Jenny Jones resent the statement.

One of the most extreme hosts was former singer and radio talk host Morton Downey, Jr. would take Donahue's casual dismissiveness and transform it to open hostility directed towards his guests in the form of blowing cigarette smoke in their faces, shouting his catch phrase "Zip it!" at them, and occasionally ejecting them from the set. Though it was aired at night, and ostensibly dealt with serious political and social issues, The Morton Downey, Jr. Show was a pioneer in the Trash TV subgenre; and its foul language, violent in-studio fights, and extremely dysfunctional guests lead to it becoming one of the most successful television talk shows of its time.

In 1987, Rivera hosted the first of a series of special reports in prime time dealing with an alleged epidemic of Satanic ritual abuse. He stated: "Estimates are that there are over one million Satanists in this country ... The majority of them are linked in a highly organized, very secretive network. From small towns to large cities, they have attracted police and FBImarker attention to their Satanic ritual sexual child abuse, child pornography and grisly Satanic murders. The odds are that this is happening in your town." Subsequent to the programs, there were outbreaks of Satanic hysteria in various American cities. He was noted for self-promotion and for inserting himself into stories: he twice had plastic surgery on his program, and his autobiography Exposing Myself caused headlines in 1991 by discussing his sexual dalliances, which included encounters with Bette Midler and Margaret Trudeau. He was the son-in-law of author Kurt Vonnegut, while married to Edith Vonnegut.

Ricki Lake hit the scene as the youngest talk show host in the genre, and her show targeted a young and urban demographic. A typical show might present several lower middle class women, each claiming to be "All that" (the show's catchphrase for someone with high fashion, personality, and sex appeal), with others debating the assertion. Other shows would present someone in an obviously bad relationship and have Lake recommend, "Dump that zero and get yoself a hero." Once Lake became a mother, family oriented shows became more common.

Lake's talk show was a frequent target for satire. It was repeatedly parodied during the 1990s on Saturday Night Live, with male cast member Jay Mohr impersonating Lake in drag. The show was also parodied fleetingly on Family Guy where a guest on the show was quoted to have said, "Yo, Ricki, that's my girlfriend. She ain't supposed to be havin' no penis!". In addition, Lakes's show was referenced in the chorus of the hit 1998 song "Pretty Fly " by The Offspring: "So if you don't rate, just overcompensate, at least you know you can always go on Ricki Lake."

The Jerry Springer Show would gain a reputation as the most confrontational and sexually explicit, with stories of lurid trysts - often between family members, and with stripping guests and audience members. Although the show started as a politically-oriented talk show, the search for higher ratings in an extremely competitive market led Springer to topics often described as tawdry and provocative, increasing its viewership in the process. Topics included partners admitting their adultery to each other, women or men admitting to their partners that they were post-op-transexuals, paternity test shows, numerous features on the Ku Klux Klan and other hate based groups, and an exposee of shock rock featuring El Duce from The Mentors and an appearance from GWAR. By this point, the hostility and simmering violence had been turned into a ritual. Feuding family members would come out on stage, wigs invariably got knocked loose and clothing got torn, but stage security guard Steve would separate the combatants before the action got too violent.

Though frequently criticized, Springer claimed that he had no creative control over the guests. If they were making up their story just to get their 15 minutes of fame, he and his producers knew nothing about it. He even dedicated a portion of one of his shows to showing outtakes, in which he caught a lesbian couple lying about their affair.

The wave of trash TV shows from the 1990s brought many new characteristics to the subgenre. These characteristics include frequent obscenities, controversial guests, and in-studio fighting. Topics are always more provocative, disgusting, and offensive than those of typical talk shows. For example, most trash TV shows include a wide variety of topics, including extramarital affairs, paternity test results, rebellious teenagers who are then sent off to boot camp, bestiality, incest, strange fetishes, the Ku Klux Klan, racism, gays, marital jealousy, sexism and adult movie stars.

The Jerry Springer Show is noted for being one of the trashiest shows of the genre and epitomizing the trash TV show, and indeed proudly proclaims itself as the worst television show in history, quoting a TV Guide review of the show. Morning radio personality Howard Stern, while rejecting the often applied label of "shock jock", also incorporates many of these aspects in the televised versions of his daily radio show.The label of "trash" has also been applied to various reality television series that featured sexual encounters between participants (i.e. Big Brother) and contest shows like Fear Factor that included contestants consuming or immersed in disgusting substances (insects, animal parts, etc.).

In Europe
American talk shows like Jerry Springer and homegrown European imitations are widely syndicated and popular throughout Europe.

Annita Pania is the longest living representative of Trash TV in Greecemarker, which reached its peak during the mid-90s.

End of an era

By the early 2000s, the genre began to decline in popularity with viewing audiences, and certain hosts either saw their shows cancelled due to low ratings (i.e. Jenny Jones and Sally Jessy Raphaël) or voluntarily ended their shows to pursue other interests, such as Ricki Lake. Many media analysts have attributed the decline in popularity of tabloid talk shows and daytime talk in general to competition from cable as well as the presumption that viewers were tiring of the constant recycling of subjects that are often shown on such programs. Another explanation would be that the same audience shifted directly over to the new "Reality" TV genre that rose to prominence at around the same time. As early as the late 1990s, hosts such as Oprah Winfrey, and to a lesser extent Montel Williams, began to distance their programs from the genre by refocusing them to more serious subject matters or staying onstage like more traditional talk shows. Another example of this trend was Geraldo Rivera ending his show in 1998 to focus on his CNBCmarker News program full time.

The Phil Donahue Show, seen by many as originating the genre, was cancelled in 1996 when it could not compete with the new crop of shows. Donahue and Rivera would attempt to re-establish their journalistic credentials on cable television: Donahue with a short-lived talk show on MSNBC, and Rivera going back to his "roving reporter" roots, filing reports on CNBCmarker, NBC, and Fox News Channel. Maury Povich began hosting a weekend news show in 2006 with wife Connie Chung on MSNBC while still hosting his daytime show. Weekends with Maury and Connie was cancelled after six months, due to low ratings and being panned by many of the same critics who criticized his daytime talk show. Jerry Springer, while continuing to host his televised "freak show", also hosted a more serious talk show on Air America radio in the mid-2000s.


In the scholarly text Freaks Talk Back, Yalemarker sociology professor Joshua Gamson credits the tabloid talk show genre with providing much needed high impact media visibility for gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transgender people and doing more to make them mainstream and socially acceptable than any other development of the 20th century. In the book's editorial review Michael Bronski wrote "In the recent past, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered people had almost no presence on television. With the invention and propagation of tabloid talk shows such as Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Oprah, and Geraldo, people outside the sexual mainstream now appear in living rooms across America almost every day of the week."

Gamson credits the tabloid talk show fad with making alternative sexual orientations and identities more acceptable in mainstream society. Examples include a recent Time magazine article describing early 21st century gays coming out of the closet younger and younger and gay suicide rates plummeting. Gamson also believes that tabloid talk shows caused gays to be embraced on more traditional forms of media. Examples include sitcoms like Will & Grace, primetime shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and feature films like the Oscar-nominated Brokeback Mountain.

While having changed with the times from her tabloid talk show roots, Winfrey continues to include gay guests by using her show to promote openly gay personalities like her hairdresser, makeup artist, and decorator Nate Berkus who inspired an outpouring of sympathy from middle America after grieving the loss of his partner in the 2004 tsunami on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey's "therapeutic" hosting style and the tabloid talk show genre has been credited or blamed for leading the media counterculture of the 1980s and 1990s which some believe broke 20th century taboos, led to America's self-help obsession, and created confession culture. The Wall Street Journal coined the term "Oprahfication" which means public confession as a form of therapy and Time magazine named Winfrey one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Sociologist Vicki Abt criticised tabloid talk shows for redefining social norms. In her book Coming After Oprah: Cultural Fallout in the Age of the TV talk show, Abt warned that the media revolution that followed Oprah's success was blurring the lines between normal and deviant behavior. TV critic Jeff Jarvis agreed saying "Oprah was the one that trashed daytime TV. She took the Donahue format and then brought on the whiny misfits and losers and screamers and shouters, and then everyone, including Donahue, followed her, until it went overboard. Then finally she came back and recanted and said, no, no, now I'm the queen of quality on TV." Talk shows were often spoofed in mainstream media, with Night Stand with Dick Dietrick one of the full length spoofs of the medium (complete with fake guests and audience members asking questions).


On an episode of The Jenny Jones Show called "Same-Sex Secret Crushes" taped on March 6, 1995, a gay man named Scott Amedure confessed his love for his friend, Jonathan Schmitz. Schmitz reacted with laughter while on the show, but became disturbed by the incident later. He had a history of mental illness and alcohol/drug abuse. Three days after the show's taping, Schmitz killed Amedure. Schmitz was later convicted of second degree murder and received 25–50 years in prison. The episode was never aired.

Amedure's family then sued the producers of The Jenny Jones Show saying they should have known about Schmitz's mental illness history. In interviews, Jones said her producers told Schmitz that his admirer could be a male, but Schmitz maintained they misled him into thinking it would be a woman. While under oath, Jones admitted that the show didn't want Schmitz to know that his admirer was a man. Amedure's family won the initial ruling and the show was ordered to pay them $25 million. The verdict was later overturned by the Michiganmarker appellate court. The case is now studied in law school tort classes because of the legal significance of saying the show's producers were not responsible for guests' safety after they had left the studio. Ratings for the Jenny Jones show declined in the years after the case and it was cancelled in 2003. Donahue was also the subject of occasional controversy. In an episode dealing with transvestism, Donahue briefly wore a dress over his suit as a joke. Some critics complained that Donahue was sinking to level of his more tasteless competitors.

Oprah talks to Phil Donahue

For the September 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine Oprah Winfrey interviewed Phil Donahue at his Manhattan Penthouse in what she described as a "full-circle" moment. "If there had been no Phil Donahue show, there would be no Oprah Winfrey show," she wrote in the article's introduction. "He was the first to acknowledge that women are interested in more than masscara tips and cake recipes—that we're intelligent, we're concerned about the world around us, and we want the best possible lives for ourselves."

In the interview Donahue explained that "the show became a place where women discussed issues that didn't naturally come up, and certainly not in mixed company. Much of what we talked about on the air is what women had been talking about in ladies' rooms." Donahue recalled that he finally had to do a show about Doctors who hate Donahue because for the first time women were challenging their physicians.

Donahue also discussed how hosting the show helped him overcome his own taboos. "I put a gay guy on in 1968—a real live homosexual sitting right next to me. I was terrified...I'm from Notre Dame. And believe me that's the one thing you didn't want to be doing at Notre Dame was hangin' with gay people...If you don't understand those feelings then you don't understand homophobia. There's a reason for the closet. As the years went by after that show, I got involved in gay politics, and through my activism, I began to realize what it must be like to be born, to live, and to die in the closet."

Donahue also commented on the new crop of tabloid talk shows, such as Jenny Jones—'One-Night Stand Reunions'. When Winfrey reminded him "You started all this" he replied, "If that's what you think, I'm proud. What I'm most proud of is that we involved the audience more than anybody else in the game. People who owned the airwaves got to use them in this wild thing called democracy." While both Winfrey and Donahue admitted to having done shows that were "naughty", both wondered if newer shows like Jerry Springer had crossed over into a whole different territory. Reflecting on the genre as a whole Donahue added, "If you want to know about America's culture in the last half of the 20th century, watch some of these programs."

In the United Kingdom

Britishmarker trash TV shows are largely similar to their American counterparts, albeit more tame as most hosts get involved more with guests, rather than taking an apathetic attitude in a fashion similar to Jerry Springer and usually the audience is not as involved. Jeremy Kyle, for example, is known for his confrontational attitude towards those on the programme, while others like Trisha Goddard are more pacifist. Springer himself did a series on ITV as The Jerry Springer Show. Vanessa Feltz's programme The Vanessa Show was infamously cancelled by the BBC as a result of some of the participants being actors from an agency, although it was known previously for outlandish stories similar to the American shows.

List of shows


  1. Coming After Oprah
  2. TIME 100: Oprah Winfrey
  3. Word Spy - Oprahization
  4. TIME 100: Oprah Winfrey
  6. Joshua Gamson, Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity, excerpt and interview
  7. Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity: Books: Joshua Gamson
  8. - Transcripts

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