Alison Rubinstein used to watch Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jessy Raphael religiously. She liked "Geraldo" because it was scandalous, and she watched "Sally Jessy Raphael" because the host seemed "gentle and open, the opposite of Geraldo."
Then, two years ago, Ms. Rubinstein went on "Geraldo" herself. The topic was obscene phone calls, and she had just received some disturbing ones. The experience spoiled talk shows for her forever.
"I don't watch them anymore," says Ms. Rubinstein, a physical care attendant who lives in Ashland, Mass. "Now I know these shows are garbage."
It's hardly a secret that talk shows aren't serious. But like Ms. Rubinstein, more people are wondering if they're worse than just mindless entertainment. Psychologists, sociologists and ordinary viewers worry that the shows trivialize social issues while feeding into Americans' self-absorption. Critics say the shows also exploit troubled people, who are often presented as pathetic losers unable to rise above their problems.
Even some talk show hosts are beginning to sound the alarm about what these shows may be doing to the nation's psyche.
"The talk shows deal with disillusion and destruction," says Sonya Friedman, a psychologist and host of "Sonya Live," a talk show on Cable News Network. "They are the freak shows of American television."
Freak or not, talk shows are enormously popular. There are now 17 daytime talk shows on U.S. television, and they attract tens of millions of viewers every day. "The Oprah Winfrey Show," the highest-rated of the bunch, attracts an average of 19 million viewers each show, and "Sally Jessy Raphael," the second-highest rated, pulls in an average of 11.7 million.
TV viewers, if they wish, can watch talk shows nonstop from 9 in the morning until 6 at night, and then again for several hours in the late evening and early morning. Daytime talk shows have eclipsed soap operas as America's favorite form of armchair entertainment, and the people who produce them say they appeal to a broad segment of the public, ranging from professionals to homemakers and unemployed workers.
Ms. Friedman and others voice a wide range of criticisms about most talk shows:
* They exploit people who are deeply troubled and in need of more than an hour's worth of sound-bite advice, say psychotherapists and some of the guests on these shows.
* By focusing on childhood sexual abuse one day and transvestite weddings the next, they blur the line between major social problems and tangential or trivial issues, many mental health professionals say.
* Because these shows make a virtue of suffering and pain, they glorify victimization but often fail to show victims ways to move beyond their pain, some psychotherapists say.
* These shows feed into the growing preference of many Americans to view the world through the prism of personal feelings, rather than through intellectual ideas or scientific information, some say. This self-absorption spills over into politics, where many voters are more concerned with how they feel about a political candidate than with how that candidate stands on important issues.
* Because these shows are increasingly the model by which Americans learn how to talk about intimate matters, they may be crippling the way people talk to each other. What viewers see on these shows is people talking at each other, not to each other, interrupting each other constantly, and rarely listening at length to what others have to say.
"Instead of having good close conversations ourselves, we are increasingly watching others do it," says Gerald Goodman, a psychology professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who studies intimate communication. "The bad part about that is that we may model our conversation after these shows."
Mr. Goodman said he will not go on talk shows as an "expert" because of their predilection for conducting instant therapy on stage. He has seen shows on which mental health professionals were called upon to make a diagnosis after five minutes of chatting with a distressed guest.
Producers for talk shows counter such criticism by saying most of their guests know what to expect when they appear. And they say they offer "after care" to guests who need it.
"We never leave these people," says Burt Dubrow, executive producer for "Sally Jessy Raphael." "We will send them on our dime to therapists to help them out, to keep in touch with them."
Talk-show producers also say the shows have made it easier for many Americans to open up about intimate and controversial subjects. And to a large extent, psychotherapists agree.
Talk shows are also widely credited with being the first to shine a spotlight on the dark underbelly of our culture, such as the frequency of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence. The shows have given many abuse victims the courage to come forward and escape harmful situations, and therapists say some of the talk-show hosts, especially Oprah Winfrey, have handled these issues with compassion and sensitivity.
Observers also agree that Phil Donahue's show, which at age 25 is the founding father of the talk-show circuit, has run many insightful and valuable shows about political as well as personal issues. And even Geraldo Rivera, widely considered the most sensationalist of the talk-show hosts (followed closely by Maury Povich), is capable of doing an informative and sensitive show, they say.
The question is whether the self-knowledge these shows impart is accurate or helpful.
Part of the problem, critics say, is the sheer number of shows and the enormous amount of air time they have to fill. Where once there were two talk shows -- "Donahue" and "Oprah" -- vTC there are now 17, and each runs five days a week, 52 weeks a year. To fill time and stay competitive, critics say, the shows have had to reach further and further into the bizarre.
They also have work harder to create drama on the air. According to a number of people who have appeared on the shows, staff members often manipulate emotions.
Alison Rubinstein and others say the shows' staffs also instruct guests when and how much to cry. When she and her husband appeared on a "Geraldo" show two years ago, Ms. Rubinstein says, she was told at a commercial break that she wasn't crying enough, and both she and her husband were encouraged to exaggerate the impact that obscene phone calls had on their marriage.
"Geraldo kept saying to my husband, 'This destroyed your marriage, didn't it?' and Gary kept saying, 'No, but it was a rough time,'" Ms. Rubinstein recalls. "Finally, Gary just gave it to him and said, 'Well, it brought everything to a crashing halt.'"
Jeff Erdell, a spokesman for the "Geraldo" show, denied in a telephone interview that Mr. Rivera manipulates his guests.
"That's the biggest load of baloney I've ever heard," Mr. Erdell says. "Geraldo bends over backwards to make the show honest. For example, there are very few shows that do not pay people to appear, and Geraldo is one of them."
Other shows do not have similar scruples, Mr. Erdell says. He notes, for example, that Mr. Donahue paid two of the police officers who were defendants in the Rodney King trial $25,000 to come on his show. Phil Donahue said last week that the police officers were paid, but he would not confirm the amount.
"Why should multinational corporations like Time-Warner and General Electric get their software (talk-show guests) for free, when the money they make on the ratings generated by these interviews certainly benefits their stockholders?" Mr. Donahue says. "I don't see the great moral agony here."
That kind of attitude, however, sends shivers up the spine of talk-show critics like Wendy Kaminer, a social commentator who is now a fellow at the Radcliffe Public Policy Center in Cambridge, Mass.
"In my darkest moments, I think people are going to start indulging in bad behavior simply to get on television," Ms. Kaminer says.
What bothers her even more is that the shows feed into our culture's increasing preference for feelings over ideas, for individual experience over the common good.
"The problem is that this mindset carries over into the way we think about taxes and welfare reform and health-care reform," Ms. Kaminer said. "There is no longer a sense that there is a public interest that may not be the same as our own personal interest, and I think talk shows contribute to this. They encourage us to view interests and movements in terms of what's good for me, not what's good for the U.S.A."