REMEMBER ALL THAT FUSS ABOUT daytime talk shows? Remember the uproar about bogus guests and killings inspired by onscreen confessions? Remember how ratings were sinking, advertisers were defecting, programs were being canceled and, after virtues czar William Bennett started complaining about “perpetrators of cultural rot,” the shows were promising to clean up their acts? Well, have they?
A one-day survey gives a mixed answer. At the completely harmless end is Gordon Elliott, with a cheerful, albeit unwatchable, program about women harassed by their in-laws. Equally inoffensive is Maury Povich, with a show about female record holders, ranging from weight lifters to the world’s fastest sheet changers. Jenny Jones, once at the epicenter of controversy, now does frothy programs like “Talented Twins,” and Mark Wahlberg, Ricki Lake and Carnie Wilson all check in with generic episodes about eating disorders, youthful pregnancies, wacky marriage proposals.
But anyone who thinks that talk show hosts have toned down their shows would be wise to check out Oprah Winfrey (serial rapists), Leeza Gibbons (man tries to kill wife with rat poison) and Geraldo Rivera. While Jerry Springer’s jousting with clownish Klansmen dressed up like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia and Richard Bey’s stripper-tells-mom-what-she-really-does-for-a-living-on-live-TV both have a moldy quality, Geraldo keeps finding new, more creative ways to make the viewer squirm.
This time, Rivera’s guests include not only a couple whose daughter was murdered by a 12-year-old boy, but the killer’s parents—and youthful Jonah himself, direct by satellite feed from prison. As usual, there are tears, accusations, crowd hysteria and pop psychology. The payoff comes when Rivera, who has publicly described some of his new shows as “noble,” tells the killer to straighten up and fly right. He finishes by saying, “Jonah, good luck.” Jonah, good luck?
Has daytime TV cleaned up its act? A bit. Can anyone touch Geraldo Rivera for pure sleaze? No one’s even in the same ballpark.