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.
There was no commitment from the Springer show to self-censor the language by discouraging certain references ("bitch," "whore," etc.) and/or bleeping them out prior to the broadcast. The show's agenda is not hidden. In the middle of many broadcasts, the audience is asked, "Do you have a wild sexy or shocking story to tell? If so, call [the indicated number]." Replacing the violence on some programs were deliberately provocative actions, such as same-sex kissing. By mid-July, when ratings slipped, the violence returned.
What exactly do we find so objectionable in these shows, inasmuch as they clearly are protected speech under the First Amendment? Springer, incidentally, maintained on "Larry King Live" that "it's important to protect the show," referring to First Amendment considerations. He has a "right," of course, to air such shows, but that hardly means that it is "right" to do so or broadcast them. Our concern is that shows such as his suggest to viewers--especially young ones--that the behaviors depicted are common, sensible, and, perhaps, even worth copying.
Approximately six percent of daytime talk show viewers are under 11. The apparently easy solution to the effect of unsavory television is simply for parents to turn off the tube. The fact is, however, that parents can not--either because they are working or because the task is too overwhelming--turn off the set and/or oversee everything their children watch. Even if and when the V-chip-technology intended to enable parents to censor what their children watch if a ratings system were to allow them--becomes effective, kids will be able to watch television at friends' homes where the rules are enforced less rigorously.
How does Springer answer this objection? At the end of most shows, he typically gives an embarrassing homily--on the particular one described above, he drew a distinction between soap operas and his shows, saying that the latter represent "real life," with the clear implication that his show is beneficial to children.
The possible negative impact on young people is the concern of the general manager of WMAQ in Chicago, the television station that opted in negotiations with Springer in 1998 not to continue its commitment to him: "My concern is the continual violence and increased viewership of kids. I don't care how many disclaimers you put on it; it's hard to say you are trying to connect to the community and then have this."
This quote is more revealing than meets the eye, since WMAQ also is the station which previously had hired him to do commentary before their top anchor team quit in protest. Maybe that is the kind of courage and commitment it takes.
Sally Jesse Raphael claims that she has 4,500,000 viewers. Jerry Springer, neck-and-neck with Oprah Winfrey for the TV talk ratings lead (and recently surpassing her), lays claim to more than 6,000,000 viewers. Many are teenagers.
What do youngsters learn from watching these shows? Children will interpret what they see from different perspectives, but we suspect one of the lessons learned from these shows is that the people and problems depicted on them are quite common in America, far more so than actually is the case. That may be why influential political leaders across the political spectrum such as former Secretary of Education William Bennett and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D.-Conn.) have teamed up to try to pressure these shows to change. Should these efforts fail, they promise to lend their names and support to stimulate boycotts of the more offensive shows.
Television's talk show terrain used to sport Phil Donahue, and it was a far more sophisticated show. "Donahue" was on for 29 years, aired about 7,000 shows, and received 20 Emmy Awards. The show's first guest was atheist spokeswoman Madalyn Murray O'Hair, and consumer advocate Ralph Nader was a frequent guest. Donahue made his mark in television history as the first to bring an audience to the process and pioneered discussions on sexual harassment and domestic violence.
In 1986, Donahue was dethroned by Oprah Winfrey. His audience share plummeted from 30% to 14%, and younger viewers left him in droves for the more "hip" Winfrey. One could argue--and many people do-that Donahue had rigorous, substantive policy discussions. After all, he had interrogated Watergate figures, visited Chernobyl, and landed South African Pres. Nelson Mandela. Before you regard him as a fallen hero, though, remember that Donahue did three shows in a skirt and heels, one of which provided him his largest audience in 1991. Moreover, regarding his periodic entertaining of strippers on his program, he said, "I'm proud of [those shows]."
Without doubt, the nadir of the TV talk show occurred in March, 1995, when a guest on Jenny Jones' program, Scott Amedure, was murdered with a 12-gauge shotgun by John Schmitz, another guest, after the show was taped. Schmitz had been lured onto the show with the bait that he was to meet an individual who had a "secret crush" on him. Asking for reassurance that the individual was not male, he was informed, according to the producers (but strongly disputed by him), that the secret crush could be male or female. The catastrophe seemed to prove to many that TV talk shows had reached their logical conclusion--publicly disavowed, but privately celebrated. Cultural critic Neal Gabler stated that "The producers make professions of regret, but one suspects what they really regretted was the killer's indecency of not having pulled out his [gun] and committing the crimes before their cameras."
A completely unrepentant Jenny Jones went on Larry King a couple of times to say she had no regrets about the type of show she had and would repeat the confrontation-type program that led to the killing of Amedure.
What kind of effect do these shows have? It's hard to say, since they don't affect everyone the same way. When, years ago, a Rod Serling-scripted movie depicting a bomb that would explode if the plane it was placed upon descended below a certain altitude led to a real-life incident with the same type of device, Serling explained that authors were responsible to, not for, an audience. The distinction he drew is easy to make, but difficult to implement. The tastelessness in shock talk shows does not include any redeeming advantages to offset the possible audience reaction.
There frequently are the diluting arguments that TV shock talk is just a particle of sand in the vast desert of television waste. Coincident with the fuss concerning Springer was the controversy over the live broadcast in California of a man who committed suicide with a shotgun after setting himself, his dog, and his truck on fire. New York Times columnist Frank Rich depicted this event as disproving the argument that shows like Springer's by themselves cause violence in society and, moreover, argued that the source of the problem lies in the insatiable lust of the audience for more and more gory violence.
Rich has written several times that the only way to stop violence on television---either on the news or on Springer-type shows--is to cut the demand for it, thereby removing the profit. Analogizing the situation to drugs, he maintained that, "As long as we, the junkies, refuse to confront our addiction [to television violence], our habit will grow. The dosage the dealer supplies to keep us hooked has nowhere to go but up."
Yes, audience reaction drives programming, but Rich's analogy goes too far. Surely, the morals and standards of the broadcast industry can and should be different from those of drug pushers. In fact, the gatekeepers of the television screen occasionally reject programs and news footage whose content may produce ratings, but is too tasteless to be aired. Drug pushers never make such judgments.
To argue that parents should just turn off the TV and/or the audience should complain is tantamount to throwing up one's hands and giving up on solving the problem, since any solution is so hopelessly piecemeal that it never can have any real effect. There are innumerable ways to provide incentives and disincentives for television stations to reconsider showing offensive talk show material, or at least during the time periods on which these shows are aired. Even a moderate number of letters to station owners and advertisers, as well as some concerted effort to rally concerned viewers, could change the time--and perhaps the content--of offensive and potentially dangerous talk television.
When, as The Washington Post reported, Jerry Springer is watched by 750,000 12-17-year-olds; principals testify that kids fight on playgrounds, imitating guests on the show; and 14-year-olds become transfixed by women's fights over a boyfriend of one sleeping with one another, it is time to hope that, as the American Psychological Association lobbied the Federal Communications Commission regarding violence on TV, that at least there be time restrictions to keep this kind of material off the air when children have substantial access to television.
Ms. Lyman is co-director, Harkness Road High School, Amherst, Mass. This article is based on a Cato Institute Policy Analysis.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Television's Assault on Civility. Contributors: Vatz, Richard E. - Author, Weinberg, Lee S. - Author. Magazine title: USA TODAY. Volume: 127. Issue: 2640 Publication date: September 1998. Page number: 62+. © 2009 Society for the Advancement of Education. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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