The so-called talkshow murder case has rattled the industry and generated countless headlines, but the question lingers, Will anything in the increasingly predatory daytime chat business really change?
Skeptics – and there are many – assert the alleged slaying of one “Jenny Jones” guest by another two weeks ago will make producers and studio attorneys a little more sensitive – at least until the May sweeps roll around and the pressure is back on for ratings.
Based on early indications, they may be right. Competing syndicators last week were said to be rallying around Dick Robertson, president of the Warner Bros, syndication unit that produces “Jenny,” with “I feel your pain” calls.
But the exec producer of another talkshow predicts the incident, in which one Jonathan Schmitz was charged with murdering Scott Amedure, a homosexual “admirer” who was sprung on Schmitz during a “surprise” episode of “Jenny,” will have an immediate impact on at least two important fronts:
* New talkshows for fall ’95, such as those hosted by Gabrielle Carteris and Mark Walberg, will benefit by claiming to advertisers that they won’t be like “Jenny.”
* Major daytime advertisers such as Procter & Gamble may think twice about buying talk again.
However, a Warner Bros, spokeswoman emphasized last week that P& G is still in the show and, so far, there has been no advertiser fallout.
Ironically, “secret crushes” is considered one of the least controversial topics, and many of the talkers contacted by Variety felt that what happened on “Jenny” could have happened to anyone.
“It is normally a low-risk show. You see numerous shows of this nature,” says one talk show producer who adds, “You can’t blame the show until we get the whole story. Right now there is a lot of lazy journalism.”
“We don’t know if we have heard all the facts,” adds Burt DuBrow, executive producer, programming, Multimedia Entertainment.
Dubrow, who is chiefly responsible for “Sally Jessy Raphael” and “Jerry Springer,” says the incident may not impact advertising.
“The advertisers are thinking what I’m thinking. It’s not necessarily the talk show,” he notes.
The incident has also given other talk shows the opportunity to trumpet their own work.
One of the more established talkshow hosts, who asked not to be quoted by name, summed up the situation this way: “There are several programs… that traffic in the retailing of misery. I’m not only appalled, but angered by this (because it) is painting all the other talkshows with the same irresponsible brush.”
Not everyone is convinced that doom is pending. Jack Fentress, VP-director of programming for Petry National Television, who has long been a harsh critic of the daytime talk genre, says, “You can’t change the entire industry over the incident, as tragic as it may be. I can’t see that they did anything wrong.”
Apparently, neither can the stations. None of Petry’s client stations wants to pull the show because of t he incident.
“Under no circumstances do I believe that a talkshow created a killer,” says Sean Perry, an agent for Abrams, Rubaloff & Lawrence. Perry is responsible for packaging multiple elements of the new “Ricki” fall companion series “Tempestt” from Columbia TriStar TV Distribution and New World’s “Mark Walberg.”
But many in the media are now questioning the programs, particularly those intended to shock and humiliate guests.
Critic Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times last week cited “Jenny,” “Ricki Lake” and Viacom’s “Montel Williams,” among others, as being “notorious for springing embarrassing ‘surprises’ on guests in hopes of creating those spontaneous explosions of raw emotions that are known as ‘great television.'”
The Times was not the only outlet to let loose. Newsweek vilified a Warner Bros, exec; the New York Times, which virtually never plays up TV, went page one with the story; national magazines such as WB-owned mags Time and TV Guide were said to be prepping major stories on the talkshow-related murder; and TV was all over it as well.
The rush to judgment by the nation’s press irks Fentress, who says all facts are not yet known about the case and the extent of the relationship between the victim and his alleged killer.
Although he is not thrilled by the antics of “Jenny” and others, Fentress says the show has no responsibility for the killing because guests appear voluntarily.
To avoid future incidents, packaging agent Perry thinks every producer will have to weigh ratings against their “ethical responsibility to the guests and viewers. And that scale will have to be checked and balanced every day. You are dealing with people and individual incidents, so you can’t come up with sweeping rules.”
In fact, some expect attorneys will end up approving the topics on some of the more prurient shows, rather than leaving it up to the producers.
Although the talkshows do not face criminal liability, they could be subject to civil action. “The Montel Williams Show,” for instance, reportedly was forced to pay an out-of-court settlement to a “surprise show” guest who claimed emotional distress after learning on camera that her long-time live-in boyfriend had been carrying on an affair with her sister.
The finger-pointing in the aftermath of the Amedure murder has led some to look at the bigger picture. Many see the murder as an outgrowth of the infamous 1988 skinhead chair-throwing incident on Tribune’s “Geraldo.”
After that much-publicized spectacle, prompted by a civil rights leader choking a skinhead, host Geraldo Rivera cleaned up his act to make it more appealing to advertisers.
Others followed Rivera into the “advertiser-friendly” territory, including King World’s ratings-queen Oprah Winfrey this season. Everyone who has taken that course, however, has seen its ratings drop and its demos grow older.
Conversely, the younger-skewing shows have experienced higher ratings with their assortment of lurid topics. During the February sweeps, a number of shows have sunk to new lows for their highs, says Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming for Petry National TV.
“I think what is going on in the talkshow world is real dangerous,” an industry vet says. “But the audience doesn’t care. They look at it as wrestling.”
Joe Flint contributed to this report.