New young talk-show hosts air their own failings

They have histories of drug problems, eating disorders, childhood stardom and, in at least one case, a criminal conviction.

They value confession, relationships, guests with great pecs, and they promise, always, to a man or woman, to empower their fans.


They are Carnie Wilson, Tempestt Bledsoe, Gabrielle Carteris, Danny Bonaduce and Mark Walberg -- a new generation of daytime talk-show hosts debuting in syndication this month. And their arrival looks as though it might be the beginning of the end for some of their elders.

With the exception of "The George & Alana Show" -- featuring George Hamilton and ex-wife, Alana Stewart -- this fall's crop of talk shows features hosts in their 20s or early 30s. As these newcomers take up residence on the television talk landscape, some longtime favorites, like Phil Donahue, are being put out to pasture in fringe viewing periods or canceled outright.


As of tomorrow, for the first time in almost two decades, "Donahue" won't be seen in New York City, the nation's top television market. In smaller markets like Baltimore (23rd), "Donahue" has been shunted off to 3 a.m. by WBAL-TV.

"I can't remember a time of such clearly defined change," says Emerson Coleman, the director of broadcast operations at WBAL-TV. "I guess it is defined in a way by what happened to Donahue in New York vs. the arrival of all these new young hosts. Donahue's had a long run, and we'll have to wait and see which, if any, of the new hosts lasts even a year. But it is definitely a time of change."

The Lake effect

Any explanation for the change must start with Ricki Lake and her phenomenal success. In the last two years, Lake has gone from virtually nowhere to become the second most successful talk-show host on daytime television.

The most successful is still Oprah Winfrey, but "Oprah" has declined as "Ricki" has risen. "Ricki" is now seen in more cities than "Oprah." More important to advertisers, "Ricki" is the show most watched by young women.

"I think for a long time the production companies really ignored that demographic," says J. Darlene Hayes, executive producer of "Gabrielle." "They didn't think it was a daytime audience. What Ricki did when she came on and geared her show to a young demographic is tap into a whole new audience."

Even though Carteris is 34, she is expected to reach that same audience of women, in their teens and 20s, because of her young role on Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210."

"I think there's a natural following. I come from '90210,' and there's an awareness of who I am," Carteris says.


Having an established media persona, the way Carteris does, is part of the package for most of the newcomers. Bonaduce is known as Danny of "The Partridge Family," in addition to his scrapes with the law in more recent years. Bledsoe played "Vanessa Huxtable" on "The Cosby Show." Carnie Wilson is the daughter of Beach Boys' Brian Wilson and a former member of the singing group Wilson Phillips.

The only one without an established image is Walberg -- not to be confused with Marky Mark Wahlberg, who gained fame as part of the drop-your-pants school of rap musicians.

For her part, Lake says there's more to her success than youth appeal or an image created through her work in John Waters' feature films and a recurring role on the "China Beach" television series.

"One thing that I have going for me is I'm true to myself," the 26-year-old Lake said in a recent interview with Broadcasting & Cable magazine. "I think there's no bull about me. I'm not a 30-year-old trying to be 20. They wanted a young woman in her 20s, and that's exactly what they got -- who struggled through a weight problem, who had financial problems, who had been through a lot for my 24 years when they found me. The viewer can see through someone who pretends to be someone they're not."

Woe is me

What daytime talk-show viewers can and cannot see through is another issue. What's important here is that several of the new young hosts are highlighting their flaws and troubled pasts, a la Ricki.


Bonaduce's producer, Disney's Buena Vista Television, plans to make his run-ins with the law part of his promotional campaign.

And the first thing critics learned about Walberg was that his wife was an alcohol and drug abuser. How? Walberg showed a tape at the summer press tour that featured him and her talking about substance abuse.

Asked why he felt the need to get so personal, the 32-year-old Walberg sounded like Lake: "You can go out and pretend to be something you're not, but America's smart enough to see right through it. . . . The best thing about my relationship with my wife is that when we got together we were broke, right? So, we survived that, plus the alcoholism, plus my own stuff and whatever we have to go through as young couples in this relationship."

Relationship is a word all the young hosts emphasize, along with an insistence that they are going to "take the high road," to quote Bonaduce.

But from the presentation tapes made available, relationship appears to be a euphemism for sex and sexual fantasy.

Walberg's tape, for example, included several sample segments relationships. One featured five "sexy men in uniform" -- a furniture mover, electrician, karate instructor, construction worker and pizza delivery man. They looked like the Village People, and each introduced himself with an ostensibly clever double-entendre, like, "I'm Rob, a construction worker. When I drill, the earth moves."


Walberg then had women from the audience participate in fantasy segments with the men. In one, a woman is at home listening to the stereo when it suddenly stops. The hunky electrician whom she calls sweeps her into his arms the minute he fixes it and the music resumes.

Another segment is vintage Lake. It features a woman who says her best female friend is cheating on the best friend's boyfriend. It isn't enough that they bring out the friend and boyfriend and give the guy the good news, but they also have a psychic there to say who's lying and who's not. The title of this segment: "I need a psychic love doctor."

Ron Walters, an expert on American popular culture at the Johns Hopkins University, explains the appeal of such segments by comparing daytime talk television to the freak shows assembled by P. T. Barnum in the 19th century.

"Popular culture works in a lot of different ways," Walters says. "It tells us what what we ought to be like. We ought to be like the Cleaver family [from the 1950s television series 'Leave it to Beaver'], for example. Or, it can give us a way of identifying ourselves. She likes Mandy Patinkin, I like U2.

"And that's where freaks come in," he continues. "How far can you go? How tall can a human being be? How small can a human being be? How close are humans to animals? In the case of daytime TV, how low can you go? It has to do with the aspect of popular culture that involves testing limits."

The dynamic of gauging what's acceptable in one's own life, based on what's shown on television, seems to be especially powerful in the case of young viewers. The question is, what will they be learning about adult relationships and responsibilities from this new wave of talk-show hosts and segments like "I need a psychic love doctor"?



The new talk-show hosts will start arriving on Baltimore airwaves this week when WMAR (Channel 2) launches "Carnie" at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The show will air weekdays from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Three other new shows will form a morning block of talk television on WNUV (Channel 54) starting Sept. 11, according to Steve Marks, regional director for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns WBFF (Channel 45) and programs WNUV through a lease management agreement.

At 9 a.m., WNUV will carry "Tempestt Bledsoe," followed by "Mark Walberg" at 10 a.m. and "Danny!" at 11 a.m.

Another syndicated newcomer to keep an eye on is "Day & Date," a news and information show from Group W and CBS, which will air at 4 p.m. weekdays on WJZ (Channel 13) starting Tuesday. Dana King and Patrick VanHorn are the hosts.

"Day & Date" will be battling two established talk shows, "Oprah" and "Montel Williams." "Oprah" moves from WMAR to WBAL starting tomorrow at 4 p.m. "Montel Williams" moves into the crucial 4 p.m. time slot on WMAR Tuesday.


The show that airs at 4 p.m. is often critical to a local network affiliate, because the size of the audience it delivers at 5 p.m. can mean ratings success or failure for a station's early &r; newscasts. The 5 p.m. newscasts on WMAR, WJZ and WBAL will again be counter-programmed by WBFF with "Ricki Lake."

Unlike network shows, which generally must be carried by all affiliates, syndicated programs are sold on a city-by-city basis by the producers. "Gabrielle" and "The George & Alana Show" have not yet been bought by any stations in Baltimore.