When friends learned sociologist Laura Grindstaff was doing research behind the scenes of daytime talk shows, they responded "with a predictable mixture of fascination and distaste...as if I had infiltrated a cult or an underground drug ring." Most assumed that she would expose these shows as pathetic culture-sores, "a social problem in need of a solution."
But thankfully Grindstaff wasn't that heavy-handed. Instead she has produced a balanced, intriguing book that takes talk TV seriously and treats its subjects, guests and viewers respectfully.
More provocatively, she finds that talk shows are at least cousins to mainstream news media--and thrive in part because of their failures.
She begins with the differences between talk shows and news. Traditional media elevate thinking over feeling, elite sources over regular people and official topics over personal ones. The result is an aloofness and coldness that, despite the news media's hapless efforts to change, leave a vacuum for talk shows to exploit.
For many people, Grindstaff argues, talk shows become part of the larger world of news and information, affording "a certain kind of political engagement with the world, but on popular rather than elite terms."
She offers a powerful example. At a rally protesting sexual violence against women, a woman in her mid-50s revealed she had been molested as a child. "Back then, she told the crowd, no one ever spoke of matters like incest.... She first learned about incest from watching daytime talk shows. As she put it, 'It was not until I heard those women talking on television did I understand that I was not alone.' "
Talk shows, according to Grindstaff, allow lay people to become experts, at least on matters of personal experience. Where traditional media can seem awkward or condescending when they tackle personal issues, talk shows boldly specialize in "sexuality, identity, interpersonal relationships, family conflict, and victimization or abuse."
But she also finds similarities between news and talk media. For example, talk show offices often resemble newsrooms, with producers housed in familiar cubicles, covering assigned beats and mining sources for trendy topics while deadline closes in.
Grindstaff observes wickedly that talk shows "do not represent a sudden tabloidization of the 'serious' traditions of network news and public affairs. Rather, talk shows came of age at the same time that news itself was taking on an entertainment orientation.... Both are part of a continuum...designed to generate greater profit by appealing to broader audiences."
Conceptually this is engaging stuff. But Grindstaff plunged deeper into the nitty-gritty by working for more than a year for two daytime talk shows, immersing herself in their cultures and excavating plenty of detail to support her points. Unfortunately, she chooses to use fictitious names for the shows and most of her sources, a technique that is acceptable in academic research but leaves many questions and holes journalistically.
Based on this part of her work, the intellectualized view of talk shows as celebrations-of-the-ordinary fades. The typical daytime talk shows turn out to be just as sleazy and exploitative as you suspected.
They are consumed with what Grindstaff, borrowing from the language of pornography, calls "the money shot": "joy, sorrow, rage, or remorse expressed in visible, bodily terms...the moment when tears well up in a woman's eyes...when a man tells his girlfriend that he's been sleeping with another woman and her jaw drops in rage." For so-called talk shows, "talk itself...is often the least important part.... What matters is bodily evidence of a guest's emotional investment in the issue."
As Grindstaff beautifully puts it, "talk" becomes "show," and any uplifting of ordinary people and their personal concerns yields to sensationalism, stereotype and spectacle. Guests are tempted with stardom, flown first-class, chauffeured in limos. They are coached and cajoled by producers ("Do it big. This is national television, remember, and my ass is on the line").
Some are outright liars and even aspiring actors (though fewer than you might think, Grindstaff says). But even the genuine ordinary people tend to be lifelong talk show viewers who understand what is expected and play their roles. "They know what producers want, and they know how to deliver the goods."
Ironically, the pressure for the money shot corrupts the notion of having regular people talking about regular issues. Only extraordinary ordinary people make the cut.
So we get "My Man Wears a Dress" and "Why I Gave Up My Child" and "I Murdered My Girlfriend's Baby" and what one producer calls "the nasty catfight screaming-match trailer-trash stuff" and what someone else labels the "nuts-and-sluts formula."
Though Grindstaff offers the rejoinder that "there are serious problems with talk shows, but there are serious problems with the 'respectable' media, too," it seems lame and half-hearted. In the end, trash is trash.
Still, there are important lessons here. If it is true, as she writes, that more people watch TV talk shows than vote, then mainstream media need to find acceptable ways to better represent ordinary people and their concerns and to show how these matters fit into a larger social context.
"Television has been aptly dubbed the feeling medium," Grindstaff writes, "but the last thing that most intellectuals want to do on TV is feel."
This comment may be cheekier than need be, but it stings and helps demonstrate the problem. Traditional media undervalue feelings, and talk shows sensationalize them. Surely there is a better way.