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TELEVISION : Why Is Everybody Talking? : Oprah is still queen, surrounded by familiar names like Phil, Ricki and Geraldo. Enter a parade of pretenders to the throne: Tempestt, Carnie, Mark, Danny, Gabrielle and Charles.

October 01, 1995|Robert Strauss | Robert Strauss is television critic at the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey. and

The Queen sits regally upon her throne, trying to appear more magisterial as the days pass by. Two steps below her, the Princess smiles through her gritted teeth, waiting impatiently for her turn. The Knave stays quite busy, twisting his mustache and shouting everyone down. The old Wise Man is bent low, watching the years diminish his presence.

Meanwhile, the Young Courtesans billow around, plotting their ascents and honing their fingernails for clawing their way there. And the Moneymen sit at the doors to the countinghouse, eyes firmly on the gold.

Such is the current moment in the Land of Syndicated TV Talk. Oprah Winfrey is still viewed, far and wide, as the Queen, her national ratings often double those of her nearest competitor. More often than not, that nearest competitor is Ricki Lake, the Princess, whose appeal to a younger audience has fueled her meteoric rise.

The perennial Knave, Geraldo Rivera, is the loudest and busiest guy in the business, mixing his syndicated daily show with periodic specials and a CNBC nightly news-oriented talk show and, for once, turning down something in August: the anchor spot on "A Current Affair."

Phil Donahue, the revered Wise Man, may find that his 29th year in the business will be his last, as his ratings plummeted 31% last season and he has no outlets in New York and San Francisco, the Nos. 1 and 5 markets.

And a flock of Young Courtesans has entered the scene this fall, hoping for the ratings of Oprah, the panache of Ricki, the energy of Geraldo and the staying power of Donahue.

Their names are Tempestt and Carnie, Mark and Danny and Gabrielle, and they want to grab your attention right quick. For if they don't, they may soon be replaced by Paget and Linda and Laurie and Leslie. It's a rough scene these days in the Land of Syndicated TV Talk, and there are plenty of first names to go around.

*

In March, 32-year-old Scott Amedure was shot and killed in Rochester, Mich. The man who surrendered and awaits trial on murder charges was John Schmitz, 24, who had found out three days earlier during a taping of "Jenny Jones" that Amedure had a crush on him. The assertion by authorities that Schmitz had been misled about why he was invited to be on the program--denied by the producers--prompted a Niagara-like flow of stories in the weeks following that recounted various sordid details of the talk show world and, by association, the gullible nature of its audience.

Among the allegations were that some shows used guests who were lying about their afflictions, that producers lied to guests to get them to come on the air and then surprised them with embarrassing revelations, that certain guests appeared over and over again on different shows. "Are Talk Shows Out of Control?" TV Guide asked in April. The most common description of these daily showcases of confrontation and rancor: freak shows.

But here we are mere months later and the syndicated talk shows are no less popular and barely changed. In fact, more and more entries are panting to get on the air. The topics of the shows appear to be no less salacious than before the uproar caused by the Amedure shooting. Despite claims by some producers that they are going "upscale" this season, consider this lineup on a typical day in mid-September:

* "Maury Povich": prostitute patrons.

* "Sally Jessy Raphael": runaway teen's mother.

* "Gabrielle": clueless men.

* "Tempestt": abusive boyfriends.

* "Gordon Elliott": bisexuals.

* "Danny!": the races and body image.

* "Mark Walberg": stale love lives.

It certainly wasn't always this way.

"To even compare what is being done on today's talk shows to what we did originally with 'Donahue' is appalling," said Richard Mincer, "Donahue's" first executive producer, who spent 18 years with the show. He is now senior producer for the "Rush Limbaugh" television show. "The thing that bothers me the most is that you don't know whether the stories are true or not once some guests admit that they really didn't do what they said. It can destroy the credibility of all talk shows.

"If you go back to our first years, sure, we did fun things, but mostly we did issues and had serious interviews," Mincer said. "The craziness started three or four years ago, I believe, when someone did one of these perverted kinds of shows and looked at some good overnight ratings, saying, 'My God, look at this!' There was a market, and it's sad [that] people want to exploit it."

Burt Dubrow has watched the evolution even longer. During the 1970s, he worked on "The Mike Douglas Show" out of Philadelphia. Today he is the creator and consulting executive producer of "Sally Jessy Raphael" and consulting executive producer of "Jerry Springer" and oversees "Donahue" as vice president of programming for Multimedia Inc.

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