Talk Show Culture

Chapter by Ellen Hume from the Encyclopedia of International Media and Communications, Vol. 4 (2003). A summary of the history and social impact of America’s talk show culture.

Popular and political culture in the United States at the turn of the 21st century was shaped in part by media talk shows, which often were designed for entertainment value rather than for public enlightenment. These programs, inexpensive to produce and widely imitated around the world, tended to elevate personal opinion and private experience over authoritative facts relevant to U.S. public life. Choreographed by entertaining hosts, these television and radio programs usually spotlighted studio guests who sometimes faced on-air audience questions and reactions. Any campaign to sway public opinion, sell books, or run for office featured appearances on radio and television talk shows. At their best, these talk shows expanded the political discourse beyond a few established voices, offered a close-up view of public figures, and broadened the U.S. policy agenda. But often, popular hosts degraded American public discourse with a freak show approach that focused on hostility, shocking revelations, and stories of sexual encounters. Shows purporting to take Americans to a more realistic understanding of modern life often did just the opposite: They entertained a voyeur audience with extreme or abusive behavior and ideas, distracting people from honest discussions of genuinely important public issues. This article will describe the combined cultural impact of relationship shows, shock jock shows, anger shows, political talk and call-in shows on radio and television, and interactive chat rooms on the Internet.


anger show A talk show on television, radio, or the Internet in which the host deliberately enflames participants to vent their anger at something or someone, especially someone who may be a guest on the program.

Internet chat room A talk free-for-all at a Web site or Internet listserv, with participants focusing on a specific topic.

relationship show A talk show about personal relationships, particularly sexual, family, and workplace relationships.

shock jock A radio host who specializes in shocking, obscene, and irreverent banter.

talk show A television or radio program which features a host, sometimes with studio guests, incorporating in the program some questions or comments from the audience; an Internet chat room with or without a host.