I. Overview: Talk Show Culture

A. Impact on U.S. Public Life

By the 1990s, U.S. radio and television were saturated with a proliferation of talk shows, which together:

  • Opened up the media to more diverse views and voices, imparting a sense of democratic legitimacy and vox populi which sometimes was misleading
  • Overcame geography, creating virtual communities by connecting the like-minded
  • Provided new avenues for swaying public opinion and winning votes
  • Promoted opinion over detached observation
  • Legitimized the deviant, providing a mass audience for previously marginalized behavior and ideas
  • Valued emotion, confrontation, and shock value over tact, wisdom, or facticity
  • Challenged the status quo’s official experts and institutions
  • Seemed more authentic and spontaneous than mainstream politics or news
  • Helped to shift the political discourse from public issues to individual, often sexual, behavior
  • Emphasized drama and entertainment over verified information
  • Offered ordinary Americans temporary celebrity status

B. The Appeal of Talk Show Culture

1. Release from Constraints

Talk show culture was enormously popular with Americans of all ages and economic backgrounds, partly as an entertaining freak show and partly because it represented a release from cultural restraints. Some talk shows purported to offer a populist reality check on professional news and political discourse, while others created a no-holds-barred entertainment arena for taboo conduct and language of all kinds. On radio, the shock jock sexual voyeur shows and political conspiracy theorists appealed to a nation that seemed to want relief from sanitized public discourse. Internet chat rooms provided an instant, global conversation with unpredictable partners and outcomes. Talk show producers claimed they were performing a public service by offering a cathartic release and national platform for hitherto unexplored social issues; critics claimed the producers were mainstreaming hatred and pornography in U.S. public life.

2. Getting Real: Distrust of the Official Sources

The U.S. search for anti-Establishment news and information was sparked in the 1960s by an increasing distrust of government and cultural authority figures. After the seemingly predictable world of the 1950s was shattered by the unthinkable assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Americans wanted to know more about what was going on than the official version provided by politicians, newspapers, and the three broadcast television networks. The Watergate scandal, the “Pentagon Papers” revelations about the Vietnam War, and President Kennedy’s sexual adventures contributed further to the sense of betrayal. The thrill of “talking back,” which fueled talk show culture for the next 30 years, was epitomized by Paddy Chayevsky’s fictional television talk show host Howard Beale in the film Network: He told his viewers to go to their windows, throw them open, and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.”

Like Chayevsky’s hero, talk show hosts channeled popular resentment against being manipulated by the powers-that-be, especially the shapers of U.S. political culture in the 1970s and 1980s: the advertisers, politicians, and know-it-all journalists. Ironically, the popular talk shows these skeptics listened to were sometimes even less authentic than the image-makers they were challenging. Some reveled in ideologically driven false facts and entertainment-driven staged manipulations.

3. Gladiator Fights

Talk show culture was popular not only for its frank sensuality, candor, and slapstick entertainment value, but for the satisfaction of settling partisan scores. Some hosts, such as Jerry Springer, ambushed their guests with surprise confrontations, offering viewers a bizarre real-life morality play that enabled them to root for a victim and boo at a villain. It was like the thrill of the gladiator struggles of ancient times. Not surprisingly, another popular television trend in the 1990s was professional wresting, using exaggerated, muscle-bound warriors enflamed by fake feuds. One American pro-wrestler and talk show host, Jesse Ventura, crossed over in 1998 to a political career as the governor of Minnesota and wannabe presidential candidate.