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Talk shows can be deﬁned as televised broadcasts of conversation. Usually a host and several guests discuss a topic in a studio. In TV guides a wide variety of programs are listed as talk shows, ranging from outrageous shows like Ricki Lake to serious political discussion programs such as BBC’s Question Time and from therapeutically inclined programs like the Oprah Winfrey Show to the light hearted Da id Letterman Show. Talk shows are a hybrid genre, which contains both journalistic and entertainment elements in different combinations. Looking at talk shows one can trace a number of conversational techniques (interview, debate, informal conversation), varying subject matters (news related issues, entertainment, lifestyle, victims of human tragedy, personal relationships and family matters), and diﬀerent types of guests (experts, politicians, celebrities, lay people). A broad distinction can be made between the night-time talk shows and the daytime talk shows. The night-time shows generally are entertainment shows or political discussions and broadcast once a week. The daytime talk shows are often broadcast more than once a week, aimed at women and deal with issues from people’s private lives.
The precursors of the television talk show are the listener–participation radio shows of the 1930s and 1940s and the 1960s talk radio with its emphasis on political debate, loud controversy, and shock. On radio the talk show still is a popular format. In the US there are radio stations that only broadcast live talk shows such as NBC’s Talknet and ABC’s Talkradio Network. Earlier roots can be traced back to public traditions like the nineteenth century literary circles, lyceums, and coﬀee houses where citizens gathered to discuss matters of common interest. Other inﬂuences come from working class public leisure and spectacular mass entertainment such as the carnival, vaudeville, circus sideshows, and tabloids.
Like many television genres, the talk show format originates in the US. Other countries adopted the genre and adapted the format to their own culture. In many countries commercial channels also broadcast several of the popular American shows. Due to a stronger public broadcasting system, West European talk shows, especially those on public channels, are often less extravagant, slightly more serious, and journalistically inclined than their American counterparts. Cheering audiences are mostly lacking as well as staged confrontations between opponents. In newly democratized countries, where state censorship used to prevent open discussions between ordinary people in the media, talk shows are a new, but often immensely popular phenomenon. Talk shows (and other tabloid media) have in many countries had an inﬂuence in reshaping the norms of public discourse in other spheres like politics. In some countries talk shows have taken over prime time and it has even been claimed that their conversational style has become the standard of public discourse (Liebes and Katz 1998).
2. Host And Participants
The key to most talk shows is the personality of the hosts. Many hosts acquire celebrity status and often shows are named after their presenters. Hosts can take on several roles, such as stand-up comedian (Steve Allen on Tonight! Jack Paar in The Tonight Show, David Letterman in the Da id Letterman show), therapist (Oprah Winfrey, Jack Kilroy, Donahue), confrontational interviewer (in some political discussion programs), or promoter of ordinary people’s interests. Sometimes their role is a more modest one as the moderator of the discussion. In all cases hosts, to a large extent, control the course of the debate.
Guests on shows are celebrities, actors, authors, and politicians promoting new plays, ﬁlms and books, or defending a cause. Characteristic is the participation of ordinary people as live, cheering, and applauding audiences but also as the main guests on the panel.
Talk shows often break with traditional roles of experts and lay people. In news programs, politicians, academics, and other public ﬁgures are the main spokespeople. In talk shows on the contrary, lay people who disclose personal experiences are the most prominent participants. In some talk shows the contribution of experts is used to substantiate, amplify, or balance the contributions of lay people. In others expert knowledge is confronted with real life experiences of ordinary people. The contribution of the latter is often valued better because their informal performance and straightforward vocabulary is better suited to television codes than the more formal attitude of experts.
Talk shows, especially the more extravagant daytime shows, have been accused of misleading the audience because they are said to stage actors instead of real people. This may be true for some guests on some shows; there are also numerous guests who are not actors. In fact, some claim that the production logic of the shows blurs the boundary between actors and real people, since there is so much coaching of the ‘real people’ to play themselves or to play the most outrageous version of themselves (Gamson 1998). There has also been criticism on the exploitative character of shows and its potentially harmful eﬀects on the talk shows guests. Guests cannot determine the conditions of their appearance on television and generally cannot foresee its consequences. Their interests do not always coincide with those of staﬀ and producers of the talk shows. Nevertheless, research into people’s motivations to appear on talk shows indicates that most participants feel positive about appearing on talks shows and feel that their contribution has been valuable and worthwhile. Promoting a cause, sharing experiences with others in similar situations, or trying to get recognition from relatives, friends, or authorities are mentioned most often as motivations for participating (Priest 1995, Gamson 1998).
The composition of talk show audiences varies with the type of talk show. Late night talk shows hosted by the stand-up comedian type of host are aimed at a predominantly male audience. Subject matter and style of daytime talk shows on the other hand are often aimed at housewives. In the late 1990s a shift has taken place in which daytime shows turned to a younger, racially mixed, and urban audience (Ricki Lake, Jessy Jones, Jerry Springer) (Gamson 1998).
Ratings are rarely very high, but considering that many of the daytime talk shows are broadcast daily, they still attract large numbers of viewers over the week and their market share can be relatively high.
Apart from some quantitative data concerning sociodemographic characteristics of viewers, little is known about the meaning of talk shows for their audiences. There is some evidence however that viewers approve of the genre—even though they are often critical about guests, hosts, or topics discussed. It oﬀers them an opportunity to check their own experiences and knowledge against the statements of the guests on the show (Livingstone and Lunt 1994). For people belonging to groups that are socially marginalized such as handicapped people or sexual minorities it is one of the few television genres in which they are visible. Their experiences are acknowledged, even if they are not always approved of. Often talk show hosts and studio audiences adopt a liberal attitude that at least underlines peoples right to express themselves. For viewers belonging to a social minority the shows thus oﬀer more than just voyeuristic pleasures.
Talk shows are a popular and relatively cheap television format. With the economic pressure of ever expanding numbers of channels and broadcast time to ﬁll, the genre has proved to be a versatile and ﬂexible format that can be adapted to all program slots and target audiences. It has been found particularly suitable to ﬁll less favorable time slots in the mornings, late afternoon, or late night. Talk shows are also often used as a channel to promote books, ﬁlms, plays, shows, and new releases of CDs and are thus an important marketing outlet for the entertainment industry.
Despite their emphasis on lively, spontaneous, and revealing conversations, most talk shows are carefully orchestrated through pre-interviewing guests and preparing questions for the host. Participants are called upon through screened phone numbers and ads in newspapers. Often the quest for guests involves an active search by editors.
Guests are guided in what to say during the interview, audiences are told when to applaud by a master of ceremony, and camera work is cleverly coordinated. However, debates cannot be completely controlled. Especially the shows that are broadcast live still oﬀer space for genuine audience interruptions and unexpected turns in the debate.
Talk shows are regularly accused of being harmful to society. They have been accused of allowing and even provoking the use of indecent language, physical violence among guests or members of the studio audience, and oﬀering a platform for all sorts of freaks. In their attempt to attract large audiences through staging entertaining and controversial subject matters and guests, they are said to violate moral standards, often leading to confrontations among the participants or to mental and verbal abuse.
5. Theoretical Approaches To Talk Shows
The study of talk shows is relatively new and has expanded with their growing share in program schedules. At the same time these studies reﬂect more general concerns in mass communication research. In the 1950s psychologists studied the eﬀects of talk shows on the emotional well being of supposedly alienated and isolated members of the audience (Horton and Wohl 1956). In the 1960s and 1970s, talk shows were analyzed from an economic perspective. They were considered to exemplify the commercialization of television and its corruption of morals and the public sphere. In the 1980s and 1990s, in the wake of the growing popularity and academic status of media and cultural studies, more serious attention is being paid to the study of popular culture in general and popular television genres such as the talk show in particular. Currently a number of diﬀerent approaches can be distinguished. An important strand of research looks at talk shows as an alternative public sphere that provides a platform for citizens to communicate about public aﬀairs among themselves or with representatives of government institutions (Livingstone and Lunt 1994, Liebes and Katz 1998, Munson 1993, Gamson 1998). It is considered ‘alternative’ because it encompasses social groups that are usually excluded or under-represented in the public sphere. In particular, daytime talk shows in which studio audiences participate in the discussion oﬀer opportunities for the participation of marginalized social groups (women, blacks, ‘ordinary people’) which are not normally heard in the traditional news genres. They deal with issues and perspectives that are usually excluded from the public sphere, but are nonetheless relevant in many people’s lives, especially the lives of less powerful groups in society. Another contribution comes from research into the motivation of guests on talk shows (Priest 1995, Gamson 1998, Hoﬀmann 1998) and into audience gratiﬁcation and interpretation (Livingstone and Lunt 1994). An in-depth study of certain characteristics of talk shows is a sociolinguistic analysis of the forms of speech in talk shows (Carbaugh 1988).
Finally the genre is labeled as a postmodern genre par excellence because of its extreme intertextuality, its ambiguity and incoherence, its combination of both information and entertainment, personal and public experiences, lay people and experts (Munson 1993). Relatively unexplored is the place of talk shows in the media systems of non-Western countries.
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