Two images changed television-talk shows and national politics forever in 1992: Presidential candidate Bill Clinton wearing dark glasses and playing the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” and Texas billionaire Ross Perot telling “Larry King Live” that if his supporters placed him on the ballot, he would run for the presidency.
Politicians have been on talk shows before Johnny Carson and Phil Donahue–and future President Clinton even used Carson’s “The Tonight Show” couch to redeem himself following his embarrassingly long nomination speech at the 1988 Democratic convention.
In the election of 1992, candidates decided that there was no better way to reach voters than on television talk shows. “It turned the election around,” says Martin M. Berman, executive producer of “Geraldo.””What could be more democratic? What could be more populist than to be on a talk show, where your constituents have the opportunity to ask you questions?”
Burt Dubrow, executive producer of “Sally Jesse Raphael” and “Jerry Springer, ” makes the distinction that it was the candidates’ idea, not the talk shows. “Meaning,” he says, “that they wanted to get to the people. How do you get to the people? Well, every day on one of these shows, six or seven million people watch, and you have 200 or 300 people in the audience. It was an obvious choice.”
Dubrow, whose talk-show experience goes back to the “Mike Douglas Show” out of Philadelphia in the early ’70s, says he’s always referred to his shows as town meetings. “Then, all of a sudden, that’s what the candidates were calling them,” he says.
Michael King, president of King World, which syndicates “Oprah,” and the upcoming “Les Brown Show,” says the talk show was just another forum for politicians.
“Somebody said a long time ago, ‘I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right,’ ” he observes. “Candidates weren’t shying from the news, they were trying to get on everything that would put them on.”
Marla Kell Brown, executive producer of “The Arsenio Hall Show,” says she invited all the candidates to offer equal time. “Clinton said, ‘yes,’ ” she says.”We would have done Ross Perot or the President.”
Clinton’s appearance, says Brown, became a bigger event than she imagined. “After we booked him, there seemed to be a whole focus on the candidates using the talk shows to reach the masses, as opposed to their normal political venues, ” she says. “It spawned an entire refocusing of how campaigns were run.”
Brown says it was Bill Clinton’s idea to play his saxophone and to wear dark glasses on the show. She says Hall wasn’t hurt by a snide remark Bush spokesman Marvin Fitzwater made about appearing on the “Arsenio” show. “Arsenio’s a comedian. I never got any feeling that it was a personal hurt,” she says. “He dealt with it in a comedic way.”
Larry King’s executive producer Tammara Haddad says it was no surprise that politicians gravitated to the talk show. “Let’s face it, if you hold a press conference, you’re not quite sure how it’s going to be played on the 6 o’clock news,” she says. “But if it’s an unedited format, like a ‘Larry King Live,’ with calls from viewers, you will know exactly what the result will be.”
That’s not to say there aren’t risks. “Quite a few people do not want to go on live anywhere and they certainly won’t take calls from viewers,” Haddad says.
Haddad has noticed a change in her colleagues in the CNN newsroom. “They’re turning more towards us for our opinions of things and looking at us differently ,” she says, “because they know that Clinton and Perot, senators and congressmen , and local officials, will now seriously consider going on ‘Larry King Live’ before they go on ‘Nightline’ or the news shows.”
One person who certainly benefited from that development was radio personality Rush Limbaugh, who launched his mostly late-night TV talk show to considerable success.
“There was a heightened interest in politics and our show started just when that happened,” says Maria Bianco, one of the show’s producers.
Critics have suggested that one reason candidates flocked to the talk shows was because they were guaranteed softball questions.
Larry King’s producer challenges such critics to read the show’s transcripts and compare them to news shows.
“We’ve seen how many news stories were broken on the show,” she says. “Everyone has their own style and Larry’s proven that you don’t have to hit people hard, hurt people, in order to get them to say how they feel. We found out early in 1992 with David Duke, that there’s something to be said for giving people the rope to hang themselves.”
Several shows, including King’s, were criticized for granting Duke, the Louisiana former KKK leader, a platform for his views. “But people got to see what he was and made the decision as to whether they liked him or not,” Haddad says. “Our role is to show who people are, for good or bad, whether we personally like them or not. There’s no question that you will see what they’re all about by the end of the show.”
Haddad accepts that some people may not be comfortable watching Larry King ask Ross Perot or Bill Clinton questions in a positive way.
“But I strongly believe that if you look at the news that came out of it, we broke a fair to very good amount of news stories with that style,” she says. “It was Larry who lulled Dan Quayle into a sense of security so that he came out with a position that was pro-choice. That was one of the key moments of the election.”
Haddad says it’s a matter of style. “I can’t imagine Sam Donaldson changing his style and nor can I imagine Larry changing,” she says. “We have the benefits of Barbara Walters, Donaldson, Ted Koppel and Larry King. That’s the best part, that we have so many shows out there.”
Alan Perris, senior VP for firstrun programs at Columbia Pictures Television Distribution, which launches “Ricki” this fall, says the downside is the number of talk-show hosts who aren’t real reporters.
“They may have high interest, and they have a list of questions, but maybe they can’t follow up on a prepared statement from a candidate with the right kinds of questions,” says Perris. “Let’s face it, though, I’d feel comfortable watching Phil Donahue interview any candidate knowing I’m getting as much as I can get out of it.”
“Geraldo” producer Berman agrees. “When Clinton did Donahue, the questions weren’t softball at all,” he says. “He (Clinton) was so pissed he wanted to get up and walk out.”
When Phil Donahue created the modern, single-issue talk show 25 years ago, politics was immediately a key ingredient. “That was one of the things that got us going and established a good reputation,” says executive producer Pat McMillen, who’s been with the show from the start.
“When we started, it was around the time of the Vietnam War and all of the radicals were starting to state their feelings and causes. We gave them a platform to speak, on both sides of the issue,” says McMillen. “Politics has always played a role in the Donahue show.”
Michael Gelman, executive producer of “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee,” says there’s a good balance between Donahue and hard news and the remainder of the talk shows.
“Going on talk shows shouldn’t create a gap. There was no lack of news coverage of the candidates. I don’t really see how that would take away from the issues,” Gelman says.
Not everybody thinks the trend will last. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and it’s cyclical,” says Donahue’s McMillen. “For a while there, it started to swing back to the political area, but it didn’t swing hard enough.”
Herman Rush, executive producer of “The Montel Williams Show,” says it’s something that will be seen only every four years.
“The secret to success in a talk show is to have subjects the audience wants to see and hear,” he says. “Audiences have a certain amount of fickleness. During election years they’re very into politics. During Super Bowl, they’re into football.”