Sleaze still runs free, but not as fast, wild

A woman with 40-pound breasts, on “Sally Jesse Raphael.”

A man who had an affair with his brother-in-law, on “Geraldo.”

A man who burns himself to sleep, on “Jerry Springer.”

A man who hammers a nail through his tongue, on “The Joan Rivers Show.”

A 65-year-old woman performs a striptease, on “Donahue.”

What, are there no pregnant, lesbian nuns?

Maybe not. But “Talk Soup,” E! Entertainment Television’s daily half-hour of highlights from 10 of the more than 20 talk shows on TV, has carried all the others. When many people think of talk shows, it’s the sleazier topics, the wild and wacky sex stories and outrageous family tangles that come to mind.

“Everybody does sex shows,” says Larry Ferber, executive producer of “The Joan Rivers Show.””Anybody who says they don’t, come on, we know they pull ratings, let’s be honest. What works for us when we do them is that Joan is funny, so they’re never really offensive.”

“We get hit with this thing about doing sleaze, but a lot of shows get hit harder than we do,” says “Donahue” executive producer Pat McMillen. “There are people who say all we do is sex, but when we look at our show, we do just over 200 shows a year, and maybe 20 of them will have something to do with sex. That’s all they remember.”

Few producers take offense at the term sleazy. “I think some of it is sleazy, ” says Herman Rush, executive producer of “The Montel Williams Show.”

He says it depends on how the topics are treated.

“I may be a little prejudiced, but Montel brings a certain dignity sometimes to a sleazy subject and he presents it differently,” Rush says. “I think it’s how you present it.”

Rush says Williams would never do anything that exploited children or young people, but that otherwise there are no restrictions.

“I don’t lose sight of the fact that we’re in the world of entertainment,” he says. “The shows are informative and therefore anything that’s in the news is a potential subject matter for the show. You can take a lot of sleaze subjects and present them with dignity. You can put sleaze on a silver platter and it becomes gold.”

Burt Dubrow, executive producer of “Sally Jesse Raphael” and “Jerry Springer, ” makes no bones about it. “Have we done some crazy, funky kinds of shows? Certainly we have,” Du-brow says. “As I’ve said a million times over: We don’t make these stories up. If we made them up, then we should be criticized, but we don’t.”

Raphael will soon celebrate 10 years on the air. “We’re on the air five days a week and we’re going to make an error or two,” Dubrow says. “I think there’s an appetite for life. That’s what we do. I think our show reflects life, reflects the news.

“As Phil Donahue says, we have a job to attract a crowd. We try to do it (attract a crowd) responsibly and we don’t go out of our way to exploit.”

Dubrow concedes that the pressure for ratings over recent years has tended to lower standards. “I think maybe we all got caught up in the race a bit. I think I did,” he says. “I’m not caught up in it any more. We’re back to doing warm, sensitive, compassionate issues and subjects that are important to the person at home.”

“Geraldo,” too, has changed somewhat, according to executive producer Martin M. Berman.

“Some of it was our own free will, and some of it was that we took heed of what we were hearing in the marketplace,” Berman says. “It seems that Geraldo was held to a higher standard than some of the other talk show hosts.

We can both do the same show and Geraldo will be skewered by the critics, just get beaten up for doing what everyone else does.”

Berman says he doesn’t understand it, but he’s become very sensitive to it. “A couple of years ago, we looked very closely at some of the objectionable material and some of the more fringe topics, and we’ve gotten away from a lot of them,” he says. “There are certain subjects that we just don’t do any-more.”

Berman doesn’t claim that “G-raldo” has turned into “Meet thePress.””Not by a long shot,” he says. “But I am saying that some of the more sensational stuff, some of the real freak-show kinds of things, we’ve stopped doing them for sometime.”

“It’s paid off,” he says. “Advertisers, who had dropped the show, have returned and more traditionally mainstream advertisers have come on board. Several stations have also returned the show to the 4 o’clock timeslot. In Houston, ‘Geraldo’ now faces ‘Oprah.’

“That was really a testament to the fact that we had cleaned up our act,” Berman says, “and could perform well.”

Gale Steinberg, co-executiveproducer of “Ricki,” set to debut this fall and a former “Donahue” producer, argues that being commercial is not synonymous with being exploitive.

“This spectrum had swung to the extreme where you had people, who were really in pain in their relationship, getting on TV and screaming at each other,” Steinberg admits. “Now you’re seeing a swing back away from that. It’s not capturing the kind of audience response they want.”

Ed Glavin, co-executive producer of “Jenny Jones,” says that if there’s been a swing away from the sleaze factor, “I don’t think it’s because of any nobility.”

“The challenge in producing a talk show is to know the audience and the audience is continually evolving,” Glavin says. “Five years ago you could not do a show on affairs, on cheating, on cross-dressing, these fringe topics, without having an expert there. These days, you see far fewer experts and far more personal stories.”

“It doesn’t always have to do with sex,” Glavin says.

“Oprah did a ‘home alone’ show that did a 16 rating in New York, a huge number,” he says.

Still, a lot of the time, it is sex. “And we certainly won’t be shy about approaching sex,” says Glavin. “But if we’re not doing as many cross-dressing shows and lesbian nuns and lesbian go-go dancers, it’s not because we’ve been scared off of them, it’s because the ebb and flow of the talk-show river has changed a little bit.”

Some talk shows never got their feet wet. Vicki Lawrence, in her “Vicki!” show, set out to avoid heavy topics. “We really tried to stay away from the grimmer, darker stuff,” says her executive producer, Nancy Alspaugh-Jackson. “There are already hosts out there doing that and it may have reached saturation point.”

“Vicki!” specializes in nostalgic shows, reunions and finders of lost loves. “People like to be reminded of the good things, when it was a simpler time,” Alspaugh-Jackson says.

“Live with Regis and Kathie Lee” started out with some heavier segments but soon dropped them. “I’ve gotten further and further away from that,” says executive producer Michael Gelman.

Shy away

Larry King and Rush Limbaugh have also stayed away. “We’re fortunate that we don’t have to do that,” says “Larry King Live” executive producer Tamara Haddad.

Limbaugh even ignores hot topics such as the Woody Allen saga, the Amy Fisher story and the Chicago “home-alone” children.

“There are some topics, and those are three that we really have not covered,” says producer Maria Bianco, “just because they are all over the media and we get sick of them.”

The new talk shows coming up this year are also rejecting sensationalism. “I will not do any of those kinds of sleazy shows that focus on transsexuals or mothers having sex with their sons,” declares Les Brown, whose own show debuts in the fall. “I would never do shows of that nature.”

Jim Ackerman, executive producer of “Jane Pratt,” which debuts on the Lifetime Channel on March 1, says, “Lifetime was real clear about it. They do not want this to be a tabloid show and it won’t be. We want it to be solid and smart. To have fun, certainly, but we won’t be sensational or sleazy.”

Nor will “Bertice Berry,” which debuts in the fall. “Last year it was with the salacious topics,” says executive producer Steve Clements. “It’s a very responsible time now. Too many things are happening with the new administration, with the economy, with what people are doing in the ’90s,” he says.

Gale Steinberg, executive producer of the upcoming “Ricki,” believes hosts can tread a fine line on some topics. “Going for cheap exploitative stuff is not the kind of signature we intend to give ‘Ricki,’ ” she says.

If Donahue’s Pat McMillen is any judge, viewers could end up being nostalgic for sexy shows. She fears the new appetite is for stories about violence.

“For a while everybody was doing sex, but now it seems they like murder and mayhem,” says McMillen. “A little of that is OK, if it’s real light, but people are just crazed with seeing this now. I think it’s a bit much at the moment.”

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