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What's the Limit?: The Buzz on Talk-Show Row : Television: The official reaction to the killing of a 'Jenny Jones' guest is that it was a fluke, but others say it's time for some guidelines.

March 17, 1995|MICHELE WILLENS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — "It didn't send a shiver, but we all felt sadness," talk-show host Charles Perez says, referring to the reaction of his staff when they learned about a killing last week that authorities said stemmed from an encounter on the "Jenny Jones" show. But Perez refuses to let his business take the blame for the fatal reaction one guest allegedly had to the surprise revelation that he had a homosexual secret admirer.

"I just don't think this is a commentary about talk shows," he says. "It has more to do with the degree of hatefulness in the world we live in. We don't play with danger any more than any tabloid show."

Another talk-show host, Jerry Springer, similarly says that news reporters who surprise people with a microphone following a tragedy are just as potentially guilty in "ambushing" someone into violent action.

"The news tends to exploit people every day," he says. "When we (on talk shows) have people on, it's only because they want to be on."

So goes the "not me" reaction this week on Talk-Show Row, an area on and around West 57th Street here where shows like Perez's, Geraldo Rivera's, Sally Jessy Raphael's, Montel Williams', Ricki Lake's, Gordon Elliott's, Maury Povich's and Rolonda Watts' are taped before live audiences.

Yes, inside that phenomenally successful world, the talk--at least publicly--has stopped. The official reaction, when there has been one at all, is that the case of the Michigan man accused of shooting a gay man who a few days earlier had surprised him on "Jenny Jones" is an isolated incident and that most shows, even when they do such "surprise" episodes, inform their guests--up to a point--what they can expect.

But privately, there is some buzz among, and between, the shows that perhaps this is the time to come up with a set of guidelines that more clearly delineate what should and shouldn't be done.

"This is a challenge, a wake-up call," says host Rolonda Watts. "We've got to find new and creative ways of treating our subjects."

The killing in Rochester, Mich., follows several other controversies stemming from talk shows recently: Rivera is being sued by an adopted soap opera star who was most unpleasantly reunited with his real mother on the show; Montel Williams got caught presenting a "serial rapist" whom authorities said later was a phony; Williams' producers settled out of court with a guest who sued for the pain suffered when her sister told her on the air that she'd been sleeping with her boyfriend of 14 years, and there have been accusations that some shows use actors to portray guests.

Whether it's too late to turn back, however, is another issue, what with about 20 national talk shows airing in syndication, a slew more coming in the fall, and all kinds of new and changing gimmicks that have added to the overall frenzy of such programs.

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One of the biggest changes has been in the live audience, which used to be a relatively passive participant. Now, with actual warm-ups preceding the programs (similar to a sitcom, for example), the audience is encouraged to take a much more active pro-and-con stance.

"We tell them they're not here for 'Meet the Press,' " explains Amy Rosenblum, senior producer of "Sally Jessy Raphael," "and that they should get involved. I'd say half the show is now the audience, and a quiet one can ruin the show."

But a vocal one can intimidate or humiliate a particularly vulnerable or unstable guest.

"People who go on those shows have a strong need to tell their story and they feel they will be understood and vindicated," explains Santa Monica-based psychiatrist Roger Gould. "But there's a big difference between 2 million viewers from whom they get no feedback and a handful of intensely opinionated people in the same room. The latter might make a fragile ego feel more ashamed."

Other key changes in talk shows of late include more guests, more interaction among them, gimmicks such as soundproof booths, and tabloidlike titles ("Lose Weight or Lose Me," "I Treat Men Like Dirt but They Keep Coming Back for More").

"When I worked on the 'Donahue' show, we had three guests and an expert," notes Gail Steinberg, now an executive producer of "The Ricki Lake Show." "Now we have an average 12 to 14 guests per hour and we speed up the pace. We've also redirected the action so they talk to each other rather than the host, so you get little dramas within each show."

Another key change is the virtual lack of news-related stories--once the staple of such shows--with the possible exception of sensational ones such as O.J. Simpson or Susan Smith, the mother charged with drowning her two children.

"When Phil was all alone out there, there were shows on things like Pentagon overspending, but Oprah changed the street we all live on," says Steinberg. "Suddenly, relationship shows became the norm and she did them up close and personal. That's when the explosion really hit."

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