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f,ven though he often deals

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Phil Donahue
makes no

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his lowbrow antics" tI cantt


be a BBC

program when

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culture,t says
the man who changed the
face of

talk-Iy

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IN'AOL'

By Frank Lovece

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.',Fs:EOiwB';;6i6' have dropped on the Ed Sullivan Theater this past Oct. L7, talk shows for Transsexual
Lesbian Nuns and the Men Who Love Them. For here
were gathered giants: Oprah. Sally Jessy. Geraldo. Montel.

there'd have been no more

Maury. Dr. Ruth. By their first names ye shall know them. And they came like acolytes to pay homage to their first-among-equals:
Phil.

Anniversary," a two-hour

ing of "Donahue: The 25th


special airing Monday, Nov.

The occasion was the tap-

16, on NBC. The smiling, white-haired Phil Donahue,


56, was being honored as progenitor of a genre: the audience-participation talk show the daytime-TV version of the venerable phone-in radio show. With much of the field to himself until the talk-show boom of the '80s, Donahue and the daily, hourlong'{Donahue" gTew to be syndicated to 221 U.S. stations, 10 foreign countries and the Armed Forces TV Network. The show and its host have won 19 Daytime Emmy Awards. And, most

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hand, soliciting questions and comments from average Janes and Joes. And yet, it's his bare-it-all, confessional, sex 'n' violence programs that have inddlibly identi-

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tellingly or frighteningly depending on your point of view, the groundbreaking audience-participation debate of the recent presidential campaigxs lvas lauded by pundits as "Donahue-style." This from the man behind "Safe Sex Orgies" (July 8) and "What Happens When Strippers Get Old?" (July
10)?

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Donahue himself appreciates the irony. He just


doesn't appreciate anyone's mentioning it. "I can'tbe aBBC progrbm when I'm tryingto attract an MTV culture!" he booms, exasperated, in his o{fice at 3O RockefellerPlaza, down the hall from Studio 8G where "Donahue" is taped. His show has, indeed, aired many substantive issues and guests, from the savings and loan crisis to Nelson Mandela, as the breathless

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Phil gallops through the audience, microphone in

fied him in the public mind. Which seems frne by him. "I'm not gonna have a program with Bishop Tutu or anybody else if I don't remain commercially viable," he argues, 'oand one of the ways to do that is to be a little silly now and then, to do a male-strippers program and not apologize for it. We have a responsibility to feature thoughtful discussions of the riots in South Central Los Angeles or what happened with regard to the S & Ls. The problem is, nobody's gonna be there for the S & Ls if I don't have the male strippers." He uses a false dichotorny, ofcourse, a classic debat: ers' technique. The choice isn't between highbrow and lowbrow, but among degrees of, um, brow. Daytime talk shows, "|sn4!i1g" included,..can and have featured shows about sex, crime and relationships without being titillating or exploitative. Yet, Donahue, for all his protests, seems taken with a naughty-schoolboy delight in his ranCHer topics.

where are we gonna put the mike?' " Tee hee. Oh, Phil. . "Whether the 'Dorrahuel show is 'good' or not calls up the classical question of mass culture;" says sociologist and author David Mar.c ("Prime Time, Prime Mov' ers"). 'rThe show does bring issues to people who never think of those issues, in terms they'll understand. And

"In the Seventies somebody in this office, a woman, produced our first male-stripper show," Donahue recounts. "I said, 'What the hell am:I gonna ask 'em? And

bottleable or patentable or scientific. But it qorks." That it doel, whatever it is, and !t's b99n doing so from the day aThe Phil Donahue Show" premiered WLWD/Channel'2, Dayton, on a sinsle-station barnstormer, Donahue MixmasOhio. A E'roadcaster tered shows on abortion, gay rights, racism and health with shows about Chippendale furniture and Chiooendale's men. Or as Donahue puts it, flashing a

than now, to an audience composed almost e,xclusivelv of women. "We did a lot of ob-grn stuff, women dailineto telk about The Pill. We did awhole program

on thE btest bathroom fixtures." Consumerism was also big, to the consternation of advertisers. "We did a

show iLout the funeral industry that got a lot of

flak," Dohahue remembers' "Al5o one,with an insur'


whole--life insurance, it's not worth

ance guy who came on and advised people, 'Donrt buy

trimser," says Larry King the TV- and radio-interview-show host. "Hehas "& presence, the presence workg he's very opinionated,
tre ls

'Democratic Vistas' that if it must develo! artists wlio gan speak to the entire culture, because aderyoc-ragyrrnust have discussion ofideas at every lgvel of society. So hereyou havethat. On the other hand, onca .theseideas are vulgarized to the extent theybecome a carnhal barker tafi<ing about important philosophical issues; then it's not adiscussion of ideas at all."

Watt lVhitman wrote

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in

ir to

be.:a democracy,

grin, "We were troublemakers right from "uugity git go-" the that git go was on Nov' 6, 19671 10:30 a.m., with

it, not worth the

orice.' One show we did about the erooked things


used-car dealers would do or could do

debut guesiMadalyn Murray O'{"iI. The atheist activist'slegal challenges led the US. Su,preme Court to reaffrrm t-he separaiion of church and stale and ban organized prayer from public sehools. Pioneering trinesexual Christine Joigensen was another early
guest. "So we were outrageous right from the start," Donahue says. His early-programs in the 1960s catered, rirore so

--;no"Ju";t ia""t ititt"i

auto - all the dealerships in the area pulled their ads off not just our show, but the entire station!" Viewers stuck around, however, emboldening the station owner to syndicate the show nationally by 1970. After a title change to "Donahue" in 1974 the show relocated to the independent station WGN, Chi' cago. The show's current-owner, MultiTedia Broad-

*itittg,

bought "Donahue" two years later and in


The 25lh anniversarY Parly

you know where he stands on things, the public either

.,ilates him or likes it- You qan t'boltle tfris

it's riot

lor Donahup in New Yotk


lasl month lellow atlended bY lalk-show hosls, lrom

lell, Dr. Ruth Westheimer,


Jenny Jones, Faith Daniels,

Lary King, Donahue,


Spinger and Montel

Gonnie

Ghung, Maury Povich, Jetry

lllilliams
ilBC.

airs as a hflohour special llov. 16 on

1982 moved it across town to WBBM,the CBS ownedand-operated station. "D6nahue" came to New York's WNBC in 1985, from where it's broadcast live, Monday to Thursday, to some 20 stations nationally, going on tape delay to about 200 more. (The Friday shows are also taped on Thursday.) Donahue is on vacation most of July-and all of August, and pre-tapes several shows to air then.

leap from audience phone-in show to in-person, studio-audierrce- participation. Other daytime talk shows'were around, among them "The Merv Griffrn Show" (dating to 1962) and "The Mike Douglas Show" fteginning in gorng national natlonar two Oleveland, going 1961 in Cleveland, lwere- merely b^right-eyed verBut they years later). -sions - of what Jack Paar and Johnny Carson did each with celebrities and others pluggrng night - chats or other. "Celebrities weren't available soire project to us in Dayton, Ohio," says Donahue, adding grandly, "we had to zurvive on ideas." " That he had newsy ideas and ventured beyond household hints and Jello molds results from a newsy backsround. After graduating from Notre Dame Uni*r.."iTt in 1957. Dofiahue broke into TV as a "booth .nno,ittcet" at station KYW in his native Cleveland, doins commercials. station breaks and the like' He tAtn became the news director at WABI radio
"n"tr]t i" Aa"i.", Mich., and TV / radio in DaYton.

IS INNOVATION was to make the

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Yet, after eigirt years the1e,- reportilrg--news and conducting intJrviews with the likes of JFii and Mal*l* X, DJnahue - by now married and the father of left broadcasling to become a salesperson' five - afterward, station manager Don Dahlman of Sttorttn WLWD approached him to do a call-in TV talk show *hi"h, 25;iears later, earns him a reported $8 million
a vear.

rfl o z m a o
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rpu*rr"d inihe

'cheao to oroduce. "Donahue" and the successors

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mid-1980s are cash cows for the sta-

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He May Take the Low Road


PIIIL ftom Page 69
tions that run them and sell advertising on them. As the frrst and most prominent, "Donahue" became the protot5pe, succeeding on controversy, on Donahue's warrn, made-for-TV personality and on what Connie Chung, the CBS newsperson, admires as "his undying curiosity. He asks what you or I would ask." Timi!g, too, played a propitious part: As women's liberation took hold, Donahue's audience took on political and the point economic clout. - more to - of rode the crest "Donahue the rising wave of femi nism," says sociologist Marc. "You might say he was an early practitioner of target marketing." Donahue estimates that toddy men make up 40 percent of his TV viewership. You wouldn't know it this Ttesday afternoon at the "Donahue" studio, next door to where "Saturday Night Live" is shot. An audience roughly 90 percent female cheerfully files in to frll up 200 brown plastic seats. Most of them wrote for tickets anywhere from a couple of months ago (the usual) to eight months ahead (the long-term New York vacation planners). Unless they've looked it up 'in the TV listings beforehand, none of them knows qhat today's topic will be. On this day it turns out to be "Women Selling Erotica From Their Home." Those five women come on stage, followed by a bounding Phil. His guests are a sculptress who does both wildlife bronzes and erotic art, an English professor who writes pornographic novels, a designer of chain-mail lingerie, a phone-sex woman and a 31year-old "strip-o-gram" wife and mom, who later in the show bumps and grinds in a hot-pink bikini, no doubt elevating the national discourse. Her sinewy dance, in which she thrusts her breasts into the face of a pre-aranged male guest, proves an example of Donahue's protesting too much. Today's topic alone attracts the lowbrsw viewers he feels he nusteelr$ fgr ratings. So what need to have the stripper perform on top ofthat? It's gratuitous sexploitation, the kind ofstunt that undercuts Donahue's anger
ished him to stick to i5sues and cut out the sleaze. good-hearted, generDonahue - by all accorrnts a is perplexed by all ous, sincere and thoughtful man the fuss. So he.sometimes does sensationalistic topics. So what? "That's why we do them," he announces. "I get paid to draw a crowd." The carnival sideshow aspect doesn't make his newsy side feelodd "an5rmore than it should make a newspaper feel odd because it has a funnies page or a horospope column or a cross-

word puzzle." That's a flawed analory; the funnies or a horoscope or a crossword pwzzle don't exploit our baser natures or lower the level ofdiscourse; it's already low enough when the president of the United States campaigrrs with childish name-calling like "boz&" But then, polite society needs a dose ofthe subversive and sensational, if only to prevent a stifling stasis. "When we put a gay guy on in 1968, peopl e satdthat was sensationalistic, and what is the benefit ofthis, gay people should sit down and shut up," Donahue recalls. "The more we igrrore subjects, the more we promote prejudice, which thrives on fear and ignorance." His stance is unquestionably noble, yet applied in scattershot fashion. On "Donahue" the plight ofgay
Catholics and the plight of moms who date their son's

"Geraldo" and "Now It Can Be Told." He's given practical coverage to health and consumerist issues from the start, providing an important tele-forum on
everything from AIDS to air bags. But as his competi-

friends get equal weight. Information outweighs context. "Silence is not bliss, silence is deadly," Donahue insists. "We need more talk shows, we need more shows like 'A Current Affair' and 'Inside Edition.' Hooray for these programs! You're gonna find information on these proglams." Donahue himself is much less sensationaliFtic than such tabloidy brethren or Geraldo Rivera's two shows,

tion increases and television becomes more and more amazingly like the voyeristic nightmare of the frlm "Network," Donahue may have to resist more and
more the devil on his shoulder. theu.,$",,p.ure49.,,, ......J1"d-.tayjo!.n!,e-g=v]erymemilersof Court," Donahire says, discussing his wish liist. *I'd

.at qi$:bels lqp&gq@ eritics. . . they're just so .And Donahue today is in full nufue-nudge-wink-

wirik:mode:-'He tsks 6t the porno novelist, a weighty, r4iddle-aged woman with a quick wit. "What would ftiur mother think?" "We'll hnd out after the show, won't we?" she deftly replies, to a chorus ofapproval. It's hard not to think of Phil's celebrated Bill Clinton interview, in which Donahue's own audience admon-

like to get William Brennan now that he's retired." One just hopes Phil wouldn't waste precious minutes asking him about sex after 70. "Donahue's heart is in the right place," says Marc. "But whether you think he's doing good work or not defines your position on mass culture." / rr Franh Louece is a free-lance writer.