The days when the genial Phil Donahue and the ebullient Oprah Winfrey reigned supreme over the chattering masses may be nearing an end. Daytime talk television, a genre that once promised to educate as well as entertain, has succumbed to the dictates of Gresham's Law that the bad inexorably drives out the good.
How else to explain the dramatic drop in ratings suffered by Ms. Winfrey's show after she announced that future programs would eschew sexy and sensational subjects for the serious and sedate?
Or the equally dramatic rise of the competing "Ricki Lake Show," which regularly titillates viewers with programs on such topics as "Daughters Who Date Older Men and Moms Who Can't Stop Them" and "Women Who Say 'I Had His Baby and He Kicked Me to the Curb.' "? Talk about tacky.
The Sun's David Zurawik and Michael Ollove reported recently that between October, 1993 and October, 1994, Ms. Winfrey's national ratings fell 10 percent to 12 percent, and that in Baltimore, where she was once an anchorwoman on WJZ-TV, the numbers were even worse, dropping 25 percent. WMAR-TV, which carries the show in Baltimore, used to make $2 million in annual profits. Now station officials say the Oprah show isn't making any money for them.
Meanwhile, "The Ricki Lake Show" ratings have climbed 126 percent in the last year. Ms. Lake's audience is estimated now at 5.8 million viewers a day.
Ms. Winfrey's problems are compounded by the fact that there are now 18 talk TV shows competing for her daytime audience -- three times as many as when she debuted in 1986.
And her rivals increasingly exploit the lurid and the perverse; where once shows like "Geraldo" and "Sally Jessie Raphael" seemed racy, newcomers like the "Jenny Jones Show" focus almost obsessively on marginal people eager to talk about their dysfunctional families, marital infidelities and inability to maintain stable relationships.
The recent midterm elections produced some eloquent commentary on the rise of talk radio as a venue for expressing Americans' political and socio-economic discontents. Talk radio is a raucous, no-holds-barred forum for venting group anxieties, presided over by strident ideologues whose popularity depends on an absolute willingness to pander to the lowest common denominator. Talk TV now seems headed toward a similar moral implosion.