Tabs reflect life, vice versa

In the fall season’s last episode of NBC’s “Law & Order” the host of a fictitious talkshow “Final Confession” stages a confrontation between a child molester and one of his victims, then tips off the boy’s crazed, gun-toting father who shoots the molester on the air to kick off Sweeps week.

“Geraldo had Nazis on the show. They started a brawl. Nobody went to jail,” an attorney objects, as the host, played by Robert Klein, is arrested as an accessory to murder. There were also barbs about the child’s mother now doing “Oprah” and “Donahue.” And that same week the real Jerry Springer hosted a program on parents whose children had been raped and molested, in which an anguished father, an ex-Marine, admitted to packing a .45 revolver to shoot the man who had molested his children.

Art imitates life, or at least that sensational, often poignant, sometimes sleazy, frequently funny subculture that is broadcast on the afternoon talkshows. The Bobbitts, Long Island Lolita and Michael Jackson have become “legitimate” front-page news stories and the fodder for primetime access TV tabloids, but it is the real-life soap opera of less-famous players that has become the predominant afternoon programming. “The beauty of these shows is that you couldn’t hire the biggest writers in Hollywood to come up with the stuff that gets out on the talkshows,” says Scott Carlin, senior VP for sales for Warner Bros. domestic TV distribution.

Real thing

“What the talkshows have done is to replace the fictionalized world that predominates in the soap operas with the real thing. The people who have the problems, the abortions, the adulterous affair, the incestuous spouse, etc., etc., have replaced the fictional world of the soaps with the reality of mankind. Look at a 30-second promo for anyone of these shows in daytime with a standard promo for a soap. It’s hard to compete.”

Martin Berman, executive producer of “Geraldo,” explains, “What we do more than anything are real life soap opera dramas — family crisis, family drama, family triangles. The difference is that you don’t have to tune in for a month to see what happens. In an hour you can see the beginning, the middle and the end. The crisis worked out, drama fulfilled. A story that you can relate to.

“The most typical is a married couple, one of whom who has had an affair, been discovered, yet is trying to keep the marriage together. Can a marriage survive that? It’s kind of a universal theme. The characters change, the plot changes, but the centerpiece stays the same. Sex does sell. That’s a fact of life.”

Indeed, in these recessionary times, provocative TV talk is a growth industry. “If you go back to ’90-’91, there were six talkshows on. In ’91-’92 there were 10. In ’92-93, 13. Now in ’93-94, there are 17 nationally syndicated in the daytime,” counts Richard Coveny, executive VP of Multimedia Entertainment , currently syndicating Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael, Rush Limbaugh and Jerry Springer. “And 15 of the 17 are still running and get strong enough ratings to still make money. I’m not talking late-night or anything else. And that doesn’t take into account any local shows.”

Zigging along

“Jenny Jones started weak and fell off from there,” admits WB’s Carlin. “We came out with a show that was basically a two-subject show oriented on the humorous side, geared toward cooking, fashion, a very light, soft talkshow. We thought we could zig, when everyone else was zagging, and offer an alternative to the hard talk that was out there. And the audience pretty much rejected it universally. We converted into a more issue-oriented, hard talkshow.

“That’s clearly what the audience has responded to now. The interpersonal relationship. The peek behind the curtains to see into other people’s lives,” Carlin notes. “People are willing to reveal the most personal, intimate private part of their lives, and that makes for fascinating television. It’s ultimately catering to the instinctive voyeur in all of us.”

“I can’t believe that there are that many dysfunctional people in the United States,” insists Ken Solomon, executive VP-general sales manager for Twentieth Domestic Television.

“As successful as some programs can be in terms of audience appeal, if the advertiser objects to the environment, it’s probably not going to last. You’ll automatically block 30% of the accounts from coming into the show. There are a number of these shows now that have advertiser hit lists, but no one will talk about it. And many are very reluctant to have their products in a program in which they don’t like — the word is — the environment or atmosphere. They just don’t want to be on a show with people talking about having sex with multiple partners.”

Notes Multimedia’s Coveny: “I can tell you our rates have never been higher. We’ve never made more money. If someone wants to pull out, becuase they feel the environment is not necessarily for them, there are those who will take their place. Yes there has been some advertiser defection. It has not been of any catastrophic nature. But we are aware of it, and we’re sure as hell not interested in perpetuating more of a problem. We would like to have as large an advertiser base to deal

with as we can. The amount of sensationalsim is going to lessen. I think the public has seen about all there is to see as far as the bizarre. It’s starting to wear very thin.”

“Geraldo’s” Berman admits, “I think we’ve gotten less sensational. Some of the things we did a couple of years ago when we really got into trouble, and got into some excesses, we’re not doing any more.

“We’ve haven’t had any of the advertiser resistance or station resistance that we had a few years ago. If you really look at the subjects and compare them , we’re not doing anything anyone else isn’t doing. I think all these talkshows have leveled the playing field.

“We did some things that we would never do now,” Berman owns up. “We went to the Mustang Ranch (outside Las Vegas) about four years ago. It was a time when everybody was doing it. On the way out we bumped into the Donahue crew coming in. That sort of sleaze or sensational story doesn’t work anymore. A legal brothel is not interesting. It doesn’t hold the cachet anymore.

“The story you would do today is the ‘Hollywood Madam.’ We’ve done a few shows about the whole X-rated Hollywood. We’ve seen a lot of that this season. Heidi Fleiss was a hell of a story.

“We have done more shows on the homeless than any other talkshow, for instance. Nobody watches them. But if we do a show about transsexuals — any configuration — a transsexual regrets, women who love transsexuals — that show will do a better rating.”

Nervous stations

Geraldo is sold on a cash basis so that advertiser resistance is not a direct issue. “But a show about transsexuals used to make some stations very nervous. There might be viewers calling. Now if you look at the talkshows, every other day someone is doing a show about transsexuals. It’s become commonplace.”

Andy Warhol’s proposition that in the future everyone gets 15 minutes of fame has been inflated. “They get an hour of fame now,” Berman says. “One talkshow.”

Roger King, chairman of the board of King World, is not amused. “Prostitutes and killers. Enough is enough. And it’s making television look stinky. When you watch ‘Geraldo’ you have to go in the bathroom and take a shower, and that one you can quote me on. I’m not going to be in his next book anyhow.”

King World distributes “Oprah.””Oprah helps people, and she does good television, entertaining talk. She doesn’t stoop to these levels. They had a two-part series on (John Wayne) Bobbitt on Jenny Jones. Watch it. Look at the garbage. They ought to be embarrassed. What they’ll do to make money is unbelievable. The advertisers are noticing it.”

In the trailer now playing in theaters for Hollywood Pictures’ upcoming “Angie,” audiences roar when Aida Turturro warns the too free-spirited Geena Davis of the dire consequences of her messy unconventional life: “You’re pregnant. You’re getting married. You’re catting around with a foreign number. You’re going to wind up on ‘Oprah.’ “

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