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Democratic debate in "talk show"

Paper type: Essay
Pages: 10 (2347 words)
Categories: Reality TV, Television
Downloads: 46
Views: 477

The ‘talk show’

The ‘talk show’ has become an increasingly popular genre of television programme. Although the definition of a talk show on a dictionary website is “a television or radio show in which noted people, such as authorities in a particular field, participate in discussions or are interviewed and often answer questions from viewers or listeners. ” (http://dictionary. reference. com/search? q=talk%20show), there are, on television more variations of talk shows than this.

In a more general sense the Enyclopedia Of Television describes how a talk show “is as a show that is quite clearly and self-consciously built around its talk”.

It is based on conversation, in different forms; between presenter and guest, guest and audience member, guest and ‘expert’, which is transformed into a low cost programme that brings in a large television audience. This essay will explore the history of the talk show, and how as it has changed it has examples of being both an extension of democratic debate and evidence of the dumbing down of television.

As a television format talk shows were originally developed in the United States, developing out of decades of various different traditions, from radio, television, theatre, etc., with the first hosts, or presenters stepping out of news and entertainment.

The original talk and this style still exists today was based on interviewing famous people but the man who is widely credited with creating the talk show as we know it today, more issue orientated, was Phil Donahue who hosted his show by the same name, and the sole reason for focusing on issues rather than interviewing famous people was that there was a severe lack of funding from the network. His first guest was an atheist woman who was arguing that religion encouraged dependence and was fighting to get prayer banned in schools.

Oprah Winfrey, ‘Sally-Jesse Raphael’ and ‘Ricki Lake’

Donahue’s interest in feminism and controversial issues attracted a large female audience, and this was the beginning of things to come. Many other talk show hosts have copied this style, e. g. Oprah Winfrey, ‘Sally-Jesse Raphael’ and ‘Ricki Lake’ In the United Kingdom there are a few talk shows which focus on interviewing ‘stars’ such as Parkinson but this essay is more interested in looking at the audience-participation shows, in which there is huge interest amongst the public, i. e. viewers.

Trisha Goddard has taken over from Vanessa Feltz on ITV, her main rival being Kilroy on BBC1. I can be easily seen that nearly all of the audience-participation style talk shows go by the name of the presenter giving huge importance to that one person. This need for a central character demonstrates the emphasis put on entertainment; it can be seen throughout the history of talk shows that the success of any one particular programme is often determined by the character and popularity of the presenter.

The issues are repeatedly exhausted across the different programmes so that is not relied on to bring in the audience, more significant is the way in which the presenter deals with the issues, and also the guests and participating audience members. For example in an online review of the show ‘Kilroy’ one mum describes Robert Kilroy-Silk as a “highly professional debate show host, who demonstrates humour, congeniality, compassion and a genuine understanding of the participants in his show…

Although this was already my opinion, after taking part in a recent show, I now have even more respect for this very, very lovely man. ” (http://www. dooyoo. co. uk/tv/tv_programs/kilroy/_review/321438) This is a very personal review, the writer is impressed with the character and style of the presenter, and it is him that makes the show a success. Similar is this review of ‘Trisha’; the presenter is described as having “all the attributes you’d expect from a talk-show host. Primarily she has the ability to have everyone at ease and asking some really probing questions and she gets answers.

Equally if a guest gets on the wrong side of her se can really get stuck in, it can be quite fascinating viewing. ” (http://www. dooyoo. co. uk/tv/tv_programs/trisha/_review/366883/). As stated in ‘Talk on Television’, in ‘… issue-type talk shows, based on group discussion… the personality of the host is… important. ‘ (Livingstone, 1994:p38) This emphasis on the presenter, their personality and skills provides evidence that the talk show is mainly about entertainment; it is of little importance to public debate whether the person leading and directing the talk is a ‘very, very, lovely man’ or not.

Spontaneous conversation and ‘debate’

Talk shows are seen to be made up of spontaneous conversation, or indeed ‘debate’, but on closer inspection it can be observed that this is not quite the case. Jane Shattuc looked in on the production of 4 American talk shows, Sally Jesse Raphael, Donahue, Oprah, and Geraldo. (Shattuc, 1994:66-83). Both the guests and the audience of all four of these shows were warmed up; in the case of the guests they were ‘focused’, going over their story and encouraging them to ‘jump in to the discussion’.

Similarly, ‘the producer joked with the audience…[it] was somewhat aggressive in that it made fun of the audience, building a bit of antagonism… to “egg” them on to be more active, assertive and loud during taping.’ Although the responses to the conversations and the questions of the audience were their own words there was a lot of influence; signals when to applaud, particularly ‘when a guest made a particularly direct or emotional declaration’; during the breaks, screening of audience questions and encouragement of participation. Ultimately the producer and presenter have the control over the subject matter.

It is true that the audience were free to ask any question, however all but one of the shows were taped in advance so, although this wasn’t commonly practiced, anything could have been edited out of the final broadcast. Surely this is not democratic debate when there is so much control exerted over the guests and audience. In the same way, the selection of the audience was not always so democratic; the ratings of two of the four shows allowed them to be more selective, ascribing tickets to viewers a month in advance, and sometimes going ‘out into the streets…and hand out tickets… to tourists, especially women, who look middle class’.

Although this provided a cross section it allowed for producers to create an audience they thought would give the appropriate response, ask appropriate questions, and form the right image for that episode and the show as a whole. The other two shows often struggled to fill their studios so any person would have been able to get a ticket to a show on that day. This method indisputably offers ‘more democratic access’ (Shattuc, 1994).

The content of any talk show

The content of any talk show is going to be an indication as to the levels of democratic debate, or ‘dumbing down’ of that particular show, and perhaps the genre as a whole. In this case, focused on will be the shows of the U. K. ‘Trisha’ is broadcast on ITV every week day, and covers a variety of issues, 4 in each broadcast. One recent topic was ‘I want Gareth Gates’ babies’, which featured a 36yr old woman who was obsessed with the pop star and was sure that one day she was going to marry him.

This section of the episode consisted of her friend outlining the problem, the woman herself coming on to the stage to defend herself and then her mum also coming on to share her worries about the situation. People in the audience asked questions such as ‘and what effect do you think this is going to have on your daughter’. Another topic in the same show was ‘I don’t want to be a kept woman’, where a man shared his concerns about his partners safety while she stripped and posed for glamour photography.

Once again the woman in question came on, shared how she needed to do it for the independence and audience members made comments such as ‘I think you’re [the man] jealous, because you should be winning the bread’, (Dec 31st, 2003). There was an ‘expert’ who also offered his thoughts; this man was Martin Roach who had authored 86 books on celebrities. This in itself indisputably was a display of dumbing down of television, no democratic debate could be found.

People come on and share their problems with thousands of people, observers make comments which most likely do not help to resolve the issue and the presenter, Trisha and the ‘expert’ give some advice which most probably the guests do not take. In the case of the woman who was obsessed with Gareth Gates, the conclusion was that she had no intentions of changing her behaviour, her family and friends still thought she was mad and the audience, both in the studio and at home were amused and entertained.

It didn’t seem to be a debate where every group of people in our society was represented, more an entertainment show, which people watch not to enter a discussion but to watch people reveal their problems and if they’re lucky, a bit of a barney. A British audience-participation talk show that perhaps better displays a democratic debate is ‘Kilroy’. It is less of a staged conversation where one person is the main guest, but more a full audience-participation. There is more than one person who has experienced the issue in some way and always some ‘experts’ representing different groups.

E. g. on a programme about abortion there was a woman who had had an abortion and regretted it, another woman who also had but had had another child since and was still happy with her decision, a representative of the pro life campaign committee, and of the pro-choice alliance, as well as various other people who had secondary experiences of abortion. ‘Kilroy’ is more a public debate where lots more people get represented and there is a whole discussion and often arguments, rather than a simple question and answer time for one or two guests.

“Kilroy” talk show

Kilroy is a former labour MP and draws on his experience there to bring more authority and validity to the discussions. However despite this there is still a tendency to focus on the more shocking and interesting people/stories to draw in the viewers. As one women comments on her experience on the show where she was trying to get across her positive experience of standing by her alcoholic father when everybody else, including the presenter was focusing on the negatives, ‘Robert obviously prefers to dish the dirt and show all the bad sides, that is, I suppose what makes good television. (in their eyes! )’. (www.dooyoo. co. uk/tv/tv_programs/kilroy/_review/354143).

British “Question Time”

There is at least one British talk show that is a true display of democratic debate, and that is Question Time. Each week a panel of people drawn from politics, news and media discuss certain issues and answer questions from both the home and studio audience, all directed by David Dimbleby. This week’s broadcast featured Charles Clarke, Education Secretary; David Davis, Shadow Home Secretary; Baroness Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain; Harry Blofeld, Cricket commentator and writer and Barry Norman, film critic, (11th Dec, 2003).

This programme is broadcast live and viewers can and do ask any questions they wish to the guests. Although applications for tickets are not always successful and perhaps only a certain type of person would participate in the programme real issues are discussed and ‘the people’ can have their say. Melodrama is a very popular genre of entertainment, particularly for women-this group is the target for most audience-participation talk shows. Many of these shows focus on melodrama to provide their audience with what they want.

Producers play on this and as outlined by Shattuc ‘the clear social types in melodrama-victim, victimizer, and hero-serve as a neat resource’. This is further confirmation that the kinds of talk shows that employ this formula are purely for entertainment. They take advantage of other people’s problems to provide a distraction, surely this is dumbing down. As has been explored, there are many different audience-participation talk shows and thus, are many different ways in which this genre is used.

Programmes such as Question Time, and to a certain extent, Kilroy do allow an arena for democratic debate, as experts are questioned and ‘the public’ air their own views. This potential is not always used to its full extent, as can be seen on Kilroy when entertainment value is sought in the focus on drama and melodrama. However the perhaps more popular talk shows are those such as Trisha which focus on the scandal and problems of an individual’s life while others look on in amazement, feeling better about their own existence.


This is not what television was created for, and it requires nothing of the viewer to process and interpret what they are watching. It is insulting that networks and producers think that this is how we want to spend our time but the popularity of these shows is evidence enough that they are playing to the public’s wants. Surely these powers have the responsibility to broadcast not only what is popular, what people want, but also what people need to develop as human beings.

However, ultimately these companies are after as much money as they can get and if this melodrama and scandal, this dumbing down of television, which surely this is, is what ‘the people’ are going to watch then we have to be careful-who knows what is next; perhaps they will put 10 people in a house together without any outside contact, film them 24 hours a day and broadcast it live on national television.


  1. Dovey, J., (2000) Freakshow : first person media and factual television. London: Pluto
  2. Silverstone, R., (1994) Television and everyday life, London: Routledge
  3. Shattuc, J., (1997) The talking cure: TV shows and women, New York: London: Routledge
  4. Tolson, A., (2001) Television talk shows: discourse, performance, spectacle, Mahwah: Erlbaum
  5. http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=talk%20show
  6. http://www.dooyoo.co.uk/tv/tv_programs

Cite this essay

Democratic debate in “talk show”. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/democratic-debate-2935-new-essay

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