A few months ago, when TV talk host Oprah Winfrey saw her ratings plummet after announcing she wanted to deal with the serious rather than the sensational, we predicted talk TV was headed for moral implosion.
Our fears were borne out earlier this month by a bizarre murder, apparently triggered by the suspect and his alleged victim's lTC appearance on "Jenny Jones," one of the new exploitalk shows. It was the kind of grisly episode that seemed to confirm the continuing sleazification of these electronic gabfests.
Ms. Jones' show is just one of a slew of talk programs that specialize in emotional confrontations. Others include "The Ricki Lake Show," "Jerry Springer," "Sally Jessy Raphael," "The Montel Williams Show," "The Maury Povich Show," "Charles Perez" and "Rolanda." All of them make "Donahue" and "Oprah" look decidedly tame.
On the "Jenny Jones" segment in question, 24-year-old Jonathan Schmitz of Orion Township, Michigan, was told he would meet a "secret admirer" onstage. What he was not told was that the admirer was a male acquaintance, Scott Amedure.
According to Orion Township Sheriff's Lieutenant Bruce Naile, Mr. Schmitz, who is heterosexual, was totally flustered because the show's producers had implied that his suitor was a woman.
He "came out on stage before a studio audience, and there was a woman sitting there that he knew," Lieutenant Naile said. "He figured she was his secret admirer and walked up and kissed her.
"But then they told him 'Oh, no, she's not your secret admirer, this is' -- and out walked Scott Amedure. The show was about men who have secret crushes on men."
Lieutenant Naile said Mr. Schmitz was "stunned." "He had agreed to do the show, so he didn't know what to do or what his rights were. So he sat there and went along with it."
Three days later, police say, Mr. Schmitz bought a shotgun and ammunition, went to Mr. Amedure's mobile home, and shot him twice in the chest. Then he called police from a service-station pay phone and surrendered.
Except for its tragic denouement, the "Jenny Jones" segment seemed little different from the fare that is now common on daytime talk TV. It is a genre that exploits the victim mentality that so fascinates Americans by focusing obsessively on marginal people eager to talk about their dysfunctional families, marital infidelities and inability to maintain stable relationships.
The main attraction of all these shows seems to be the sense of moral superiority viewers derive from watching an endless succession of hapless misfits boast or whine about their failed lives.
These shows don't so much "define deviance down," as New York's Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once put it, as endow it with a perverse celebrity. On talk TV, anybody can be a "star" if they are obnoxious, neurotic or depraved enough.
The programs are big money makers for the companies that produce them. Ms. Jones' show reportedly rakes in profits of between $50 million and $60 million per year.
Talk TV's obsession with the lurid and sensational has had a pernicious effect on other kinds of programming. Its influence is particularly evident in the tabloid news programs and the so-called "reality" shows that purport to represent real-life events through "re-enactments" and "dramatizations."
The sleaze factor has hopelessly blurred the old distinction between "news" and entertainment. Spectacular cases like the
O.J. Simpson murder trial are treated simultaneously as hard-news events and as Roman spectacle ripe for commercial exploitation on electronic tabloid shows like "Entertainment Tonight" and junk-news programs like "Hard Copy" and "A Current Affair."
The networks love these hybrid creations because they generate huge profits but cost only a fraction of what it costs to produce a nightly news broadcast or a serious public-affairs documentary.
And because they draw a mass audience of largely uncritical viewers in addition to being cheap, the sleaze formats are extremely efficient at filling time in an ever increasing number of media outlets.
The result is a domino effect which, obeying Gresham's law that the bad inexorably drives out the good, coarsens public discourse generally and lowers all standards of accuracy and truthfulness. As a consequence, "reality" itself ultimately becomes just another commodity to be bought and sold.
Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.