Television's Assault on Civility

By Vatz, Richard E.; Weinberg, Lee S. | USA TODAY, September 1998 | Go to article overview
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Television's Assault on Civility


Vatz, Richard E., Weinberg, Lee S., USA TODAY


Analyzing television talk shows is a daunting task because to do a thorough job requires hours and hours of watching such programs. This is problematic because so much of what frequently is referred to as "shock talk" shows is tasteless or worse. Nevertheless, one of the requirements in media criticism is watching representative amounts of the programs to be analyzed. We decided to adopt the philosophy of comedian Al Franken, who voiced similar concerns regarding his intention to criticize conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh in his book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: watch or listen to a small number of shows and read a lot about what others have to say on the topic.

The outrageous content of shock talk shows is clear from a quick look at the advertised titles of some of the programs. Among the more infamous have been "Cross Dressing," "Skinheads," "Bisexual Confrontations," "Drag Queens," "What It's Like to Pass as a Different Sex," "Husband Sees Prostitute," "Mistress Meets Wife," "Girl Sleeps with Over 100 Men," "My Girlfriend's a Guy," "Teenage Prostitution," "Maid-of-Honor Slept with Girl One Week Before Wedding," and, our two all-time anti-favorites, Rolonda Watts' "Get Bigger Breasts or Else" and Jerry Springer's "Christmas with the Klan."

Jerry Springer has received more attention than perhaps all others for his outrageous topics. For example, the premise of his April 29, 1998, show was that a sister of a man had warned him not to marry a woman who had appeared on a previous show. Ignoring his sister's wishes, he had married the woman, who, in mm, left him and was having an affair with her husband's former best friend. She admitted that she had been seeing a third man as well, who then apparently surprised her with his appearance on the show. The broadcast was littered with fights between the sister and the ex-wife, beginning with the latter's entrance onto the show just minutes after it had started.

Springer has been facing increased criticism for the frequent fights on the program, as well as fallout engendered by reports from The New York Post in early April, 1998, and ABC's "20/20" that many of these fights had been staged by the guests and, in some cases, by producer Norm Lebow.

In response, Springer publicly threatened to fire any producer who encouraged or scripted these "spontaneous" encounters among guests. The Washington Post reported that the show's owner, Studios USA, a property of media magnate Barry Diller, had announced months earlier that the violence on the show would be curtailed severely. Yet, it continued. The Rev. Michael Pfleger organized a boycott, including 300 churches, synagogues, and mosques to try to pressure Springer into reducing the violence on his show. On May 1, 1998, the New York Daily News reported that Springer was "cutting the violence from his hit show."

Springer, appearing on "Larry King Live" on May 8, 1998, defended his show and stated that any changes would be imperceptible to regular fans. He had conceded on Howard Stem's radio show that ultimately, since it was Diller's show, Diller's insistence on some changes would have to be followed--but that they would be minimal. Moreover, he defended his show by pointing to the fact that all of his guests, unlike those on other talk shows, were alerted fully to the facts of what could happen on the air. He pooh-poohed the possibility that young viewers might imitate the tone or actions since they "get it" and view the show as essentially humorous. Springer further indicated that he was reducing the violence on his show by keeping guests "farther apart."

Reducing the violence, of course, does nothing to address the dehumanizing and offensive topics. The strippers, cheaters, and violence-prone would remain. They just would avoid some of the physical violence during the tapings of the shows. The promise to hold down the physical violence allows for stations to hold on to their chosen time slots, which include after-school hours in many locations.

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