We got lucky because we discovered early on that the usual idea of women's programming was a narrow, sexist view. We found that women were interested in a lot more than covered dishes and needlepoint. The determining factor was, 'Will the woman in the fifth row be moved to stand up and say something?' And there's a lot that will get her to stand up." - Phil Donahue
I’m not a big fan of today’s TV talk shows but that might be the subject for another node. That being said, and for good or for bad, all of the rest of today’s TV talk show hosts owe Phil Donahue a debt of gratitude. It was his format that became the basis for what you see today. (As, or if, you keep reading this node, please keep in mind that I said format, not content.)
The Radio Years
Phil Donahue was only 22 years old when he graduated from Notre Dame where he worked at the college’s radio station. He followed that up by taking a position as a news director for a radio station in Michigan. His success in that position eventually landed him an anchor position at WHIO in Dayton, Ohio during the late 50’s. While in Dayton, he also had his own radio call in show that went by the name of Conversation Piece. It was on this show that he first began to hone his interviewing skills by hosting shows with controversial guests such as Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr.. After leaving WHIO for a rival station, Donahue decided to test out a new sort of format for the daily morning talk show.
Your Gonna Show What?
At the time, most, if not all, of the daytime TV talk shows were directed at women and focused on “important” s issues such as cooking and the like. Donahue decided to go against the grain and format a show for, as he called it, “women who think” and also introduce a live audience. Rather than changing from topic to topic, Donahue’s show would focus on one issue and also involve audience participation as well as commentary and questions from call in viewers. The show was geared to focus on the issues of the day rather than personalities.
The show debuted in 1967 and the first guest was noted atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair. She had made recent headlines by stating that “religion breeds dependence” and was also in the process of trying to ban prayer in public schools. During its initial week, the show featured footage of a live birth, the moral pros and cons of anatomically correct male dolls and an interview with a funeral director who revealed some of the tricks of the trade. Given the nature of the times and what was considered “normal” broadcast topics, these were, to say the least, eye-opening.
The show was originally broadcast locally but as word got out it began to be picked up by other stations, mostly in the Midwest. The topics remained :”controversial”. Homosexuality, abortion current events, AIDS, the savings and loan crisis, interviews with prospective political candidates and you name it were all fair game. In 1974 the show was moved to Chicago and broadcast on NBC to over 200 stations nationwide. Still, some of the local censors had problems with the topics and many (according to Donahue’s biography) such as tubal ligation, reverse vasectomy, and interviews with Masters and Johnson were all banned by some of the affiliates on the grounds that they were (again , according to Donahue’s biography) “too educational for women…and too bloody.”
Nothing Succeeds Like Success
We all know that success breeds impersonation. It wasn’t long before the other networks sat up and took notice. They started their own brand of shows (both on a local and national basis) that followed the Donahue format. While their format was the same, the content certainly wasn’t. Rather than focus on the issues of the day, these shows began to “personalize” some of more controversial matters that surround an individual’s daily life and people began to air their dirty laundry in public. Donahue managed to remain at the top of the rating charts until 1988 when Oprah Winfrey and her brand of programming finally overtook him.
With the proliferation of TV talk shows now in full bloom and the tastes of the audience changing, Donahue began to lose market share. The number of stations broadcasting his show went into a slow decline. First it dipped below 200 and then below 150. When the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles announced that they were dropping the show, the proverbial handwriting was on the wall. In 1996, the NBC New York affiliate was getting ready to announce that they too were going to drop the program, Donahue decided to call it quits. His final show was declared a “major” news event by all three of the networks.
I believe that Phil Donahue is now hosting a show on MSNBC that focuses on current events. Although the live audience, which played such a large part in the Donahue format, is now gone, Phil isn’t. Well, not yet, the show isn't doing too well in the ratings and is likely to be cancelled in the near future. During his careerthough, Phil Donahue has hosted over 6000 shows and won 19 Emmy awards. For my part, I hope he keeps asking probing questions and stays focused on issues rather than personalities.