Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

25 August 2015

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, daytime television was dominated by a handful of personalities who often needed just one name. Donahue, Ricki, Sally, Jerry and, of course, Oprah.

Oprah perfected the popular notion of serious daytime talk. It had been a well-worn format – a host stands among the audience holding a microphone, directing conversation between the guests on stage and selected audience members.

But from around 2000 onwards, something changed. The old cast of players began to fade away. Some recognised their time was up and simply retired. Others, such as Sally Jessy Raphael, were shocked to discover that their programmes had been axed.

Sally and her famous red-framed glasses had been a continuing presence on US television since 1982. But her production company also made shows with Jerry Springer and Maury Povich – both ripped right from the pages of the world’s greasiest tabloids. Sally had no interest in that kind of television and after a few ill-fated attempts at forcing the content upon her, the show bearing her name was cancelled.

So what changed? In the 1980s and 1990s, cable TV was less of a threat to mainstream networks. The set menu of talk-show voices established themselves based upon a relatable personality. People such as Sally Jessy Raphael, Oprah Winfrey, and Phil Donahue represented an unsensational neighbourly type that listened to people rather than talking at them.

But with the advent of cable news, broadcasters suddenly found themselves with 24 hours of scheduling ready to be filled. And then the talking head took hold. Where the old talk-show host would take the temperature of a discussion, the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow set out to tell people what the discussion was.

Aristotle claimed that for a story to remain compelling, a hero must have a single conflict. In today’s daytime TV, the hero takes the form of the hosts. Recognising that a polite audience no longer guarantees adequate sparks, programmes such as The View assemble casts of hosts meticulously chosen to ensure maximum disagreement. The intense bickering between the famously left Rosie O’Donnell and noted Republican Elisabeth Hasselbeck became notorious, with other co-hosts left feeling rather uncomfortable over the extent of the heated arguments. Ratings, of course, went up.

Earlier this month Nicolle Wallace picked up a copy of Variety and discovered that she had been fired from The View. The former communications chief for George W Bush had been lured as the conservative voice at the Hot Topics table. But with ratings down 16 per cent, producers decided they needed a far more confrontational style.

In today’s world of daytime television, a relatable anchor just isn’t as interesting as two opponents screaming at each other.

Ben Rylan is Monocle 24’s associate producer.

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