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Talk Shows Get Put Under Microscope

March 25, 1997|LEE MARGULIES

It's not exactly hot news that a lot of TV talk shows are tawdry, exploitative, dishonest, callous, hurtful and, in the case of "Jenny Jones," potentially lethal.

"Talk Soup," after all, has been poking fun at these freak-show follies for years.

Still, there is an undeniable power in seeing these faults laid out so vividly in "Talked to Death," a documentary airing on HBO tonight.

We know that guests are sometimes coached, but here we witness it on "The Geraldo Rivera Show." We know that guests are sometimes victimized, but here we witness it on "The Montel Williams Show." We know that some guests are impostors, but here we witness it on the now-defunct "Charles Perez."

"Talked to Death" is also noteworthy for demonstrating that media conglomeration hasn't squelched the possibility for dissident opinions. Airing on HBO, a division of Time Warner, the documentary is decidedly weighted against "The Jenny Jones Show," also a member of the Time Warner family, in chronicling the 1995 events that led to a guest on that show killing a gay man who had disclosed having a crush on him during a taping--strong stuff considering that the company still faces a $25-million lawsuit filed by the dead man's family.

In the end, however, producer John Parsons Peditto and director Eames Yates are as simplistic in their judgment about talk shows as the talk shows themselves. They lay all the blame at the door of the practitioners, leaving unexamined the responsibility that also must be borne by the station managers who buy the programs, the advertisers who support them, the guests who willingly offer themselves up to be made fools of, and, certainly not least, the public that happily tunes in to these sorry spectacles to take pleasure in other people's pain.

* "Talked to Death" airs at 10:15 tonight on HBO.

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