When Oprah Intervenes: Political Correlates of Daytime Talk Show Viewing

Article excerpt

A recent issue of Time Magazine named Oprah Winfrey as 1 of the 100 "People Who Shape Our World," categorizing the daytime talk show host in the same group as other "Leaders and Revolutionaries" such as George W. Bush, Pope Benedict XVI, Hugo Chavez, and Hillary Clinton (Shape Our World, 2006, p. 48). Oprah's show regularly turns books into best sellers, products into must-have holiday gifts, and social issues into political movements. Her show fits within a distinguishing development of American television in the 1990s and beyond--the rise of the daytime talk show. Within this format are many different types of shows, ranging from The Oprah Winfrey Show's community-oriented therapy to the shocking sensationalism of Jerry Springer. Regardless of the format, political and social issues such as sexuality, family conflict, drug addiction, abuse, and criminal activity have been, and continue to be, central topics of discussion and debate featured on these shows, with hosts sometimes taking direct political stances on certain issues. This study explores the links between daytime talk show viewing and support for government involvement in family issues, which are frequently emphasized on these types of shows.

Although radio talk shows have received some attention concerning their influence on opinion formation, expression, and participation (see Hofstetter, 1998; Pan & Kosicki, 1997), daytime television has received less attention. Using the search term "television + daytime + talk show" in the database Communication Abstracts produced only five peer-reviewed journal articles. Scholars have examined facets of these shows, such as their use as a public forum (Gamson, 1998) and reaction shots of the audience (Nabi & Hendricks, 2003). Few researchers have examined the effects of viewing these shows. Research by Davis and Owen (1998) on American adolescents and Rossler and Brosius (2001) on German adolescents both found that viewing daytime talk shows increased respondent estimations of the types of social problems featured on these show. Davis and Owen (1998) concluded, "there seems to be evidence of an agenda-setting effect: Frequent depiction of social problems leads to greater perception of importance of that issue" (p. 84). Talk shows were also found to "heighten teens' perceptions of how often certain behaviors occur and how serious social issues are" (p.85).

Davis and Owen's conclusion leaves open an unanswered question: Does talk show viewing influence political opinions or stances on issues featured on these shows? To the present authors' knowledge, there has not been any research examining the influence of daytime talk shows on political opinions.

The Daytime Talk Show Format

The format for daytime talk shows is usually informally guided conversation among the host, guests, and the audience. Beginning in 1970, Phil Donahue pioneered this format in which he first interviewed a guest or guests. He would then guide the audience by posing questions to and eliciting reactions from the interviewees. The success of his program led to the rise of competitors, including a variety of talk show hosts such as Ricki Lake, Montel Williams, Sally Jessy Raphael, Geraldo Rivera, and Oprah Winfrey.

The popularity of this type of format is due to the unique opportunity, in a mass media setting, to mix conversation with a more institutionally directed form of discourse, such as the news interview (Gamson, 1998; Ilie, 2001). Talk shows provide a middle ground between private, free-flowing individual conversation and more rigidly structured forms of institutional discourse. Because talk shows allow for "participation," they may be an under-recognized arena for investigating the expression and formation of public opinion about an enormous variety of issues.

Content of Daytime Talk Shows

In a content analysis of more than 200 episodes from 11 daytime talk shows with the highest Nielsen ratings in 1994-1995, Greenberg and colleagues (Greenberg, Sherry, Busselle, Hnilo, & Smith, 1997) found themes of family issues to be the most prevalent. …