Donahue marks 25 years: TV was no talk, all action

Sitting down for a chat with Phil Donahue seems a bit unnatural.

Wouldn't walking and talking be more like it?


After all, after 25 years of "Donahue" shows -- --ing up and down TV studio aisles, mike in hand, asking "Is the caller there?" -- it just seems more appropriate, somehow.

But on this rainy afternoon in New York, the mood of the 56-year-old talk show host is relaxed to the point of pensive.


It's a couple of hours before show time in NBC-TV's Studio 8G when Mr. Donahue ushers a reporter into his office at 30 Rockefeller Center.

Today's off-the-air topic: "Donahue: The 25th Anniversary," a two-hour prime-time special scheduled for Sunday night on NBC.

Actually, it's been the topic for weeks, which may explain why Mr. Donahue seems more worn out than wound up.

He's wearing a denim shirt, rolled up at the cuffs, and a red turtleneck underneath -- a not quite with-it, '60s-cum-'90s look that's only accentuated by his shock-white hair.

He begins -- blue eyes focused like tractor beams behind those famous frames -- to reminisce about his ground-breaking syndicated program, the first issue-driven, audience-participation TV talk show.

"We were born in Dayton, Ohio," he begins, "with no band and no desk and no couch, with what was essentially a very visually dull show."

That was 1967, and "The Phil Donahue Show" had a two-year contract with a station option to cancel after one.

"We had no hype, no main media connection. We didn't even have clout with our own (television) group," he says. "We had no access to stars and were forced to rely on issues. . . . We certainly did not have the vision to sit down and say, 'Hey, they want this.' "


But, as it turned out, the now much copied town-meeting format of "Donahue" was exactly what viewers were looking for.

"I brought to the experience three or four years of hosting a radio show," says Mr. Donahue, a Cleveland native who now lives in Westport, Conn., "so I knew what lit up the phones." The topics, theTV memories, come spilling out of him: "Religion; my husband doesn't kiss me anymore; the sex has gone out of our marriage; can the principal search my son's locker; lesbian nuns."

"Our first rating book was through the roof," he remembers.

And yet success didn't come anywhere near overnight. While the heartland embraced the format, big-city markets such as New York and Los Angeles weren't buying.

"This has been a snail-like process," says Mr. Donahue. "It took us 10 years, for example, to do what Oprah did in less than one."

Oprah Winfrey is the only talk-show host in an ever-increasing field of challengers who beats "Donahue" in the ratings. But even Ms. Winfrey knows who paved the way for her astounding career, which is why she pays homage to Mr. Donahue on the NBC special along with Larry King, Maury Povich, Sally Jessy Raphael, Geraldo Rivera, Joan Rivers, Jenny Jones and Faith Daniels as well as such later-in-the-day stars as Diane Sawyer, Mike Wallace, David Letterman and, of course, wife Marlo Thomas (who first met Mr. Donahue on his show in January 1977).


Mr. Donahue says he's proud of the special, though he says at first he resisted the idea, particularly when he considered what it would take to put together a best-of reel.

Once the show got rolling, however, he was treated like the "Godfather emeritus," he says, joking that, "They were all very, very respectful. Made sure I had a place to sit down."

Surprisingly, Mr. Donahue seems to welcome all newcomers on the talk-show circuit, proudly concluding, "The feature which has been copied can be described in a word and it's called democracy."

After 6,000 shows, an aggregate studio audience of 1 million people, 19 Emmy awards, Mr. Donahue says, "Twenty-five years later, boy, I'll tell you what -- it's been an odyssey."