Phil Donahue: Talking About Moving On

January 23, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After almost 30 years and over 6,000 shows, the creator of the daytime talk TV show is retiring.

PHIL DONAHUE: (on program) We’re coming to the cheap seats, so stay awake back there. We want you in this.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Phil Donahue Show began on November 6, 1967, in Dayton, Ohio. His trademark style developed when he realized people in the audience asked better questions than he did. He says that’s why he left his chair and started roaming the aisles.

WOMAN: We’re from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and we’ve never seen anything like this in the state of Wisconsin.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He quickly established a reputation for dealing with provocative subjects, like sex, child abuse, and nudity. He often said his aim was to be outrageous.

PHIL DONAHUE: You hate this.


PHIL DONAHUE: You hate it. Why do you hate it?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I don’t know. You looked odd.

PHIL DONAHUE: You were artificially inseminated with the sperm of your brother.

PHIL DONAHUE: You’re the Johnny Carson of evangelism.

ORAL ROBERTS: I’d rather thing of myself as the Phil Donahue of evangelism.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But his flamboyance was complimented by his willingness to deal with serious and difficult issues. In the early 80’s, Donahue was the first national talk show to address the spread of AIDS.

MALE GUEST: Mr. Donahue, there is no, no, you are in no danger being here with me.

PHIL DONAHUE: I agree. I agree. I agree there is no danger.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: His topics have ranged from racism in South Africa to Louis Farrakhan in this country, to Bill Clinton and the question of presidential character.

PHIL DONAHUE: (1992) Governor, I was told that you would come here prepared to talk about your character.

BILL CLINTON: (1992) How would you like it if I spent $1/2 million looking into your life and asked you questions like this.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Donahue was the top-rated daytime talk show host until Oprah Winfrey unseated him in 1986. The competition exploded in the early 90’s as talk shows with ever-more explicit subject matter flooded the airwaves.

WOMAN: (shouting) I’m trying to change. Damn it, I’m so mad!

RICKI LAKE: Did you know that she went both ways? I don’t know how else to say it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The new shows have also galvanized opposition. Last month, former Education Sec. William Bennett, joined by Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and others, launched a campaign to get companies to stop sponsoring the more explicit programs, the ones hosted by Jenny Jones and Sally Jesse Raphael, for instance.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN, (D) Connecticut: (December 7, 1995) No to this cultural right, no to the exploitation of personal tragedies and embarrassments, no to the peddling of perversion to 8 million children watching talk TV every day.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But these newer shows have appealed to the younger audience preferred by advertisers. Just two seasons ago, Donahue had the third most popular daytime talk show. But by this season, it had fallen to thirteenth. Last August, WNBC in New York dropped the show. And last week, Donahue said he would call it quits in May. I talked to Phil Donahue yesterday.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Donahue, thank you very much for being with us.

PHIL DONAHUE: (New York) Thank you, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why are you retiring?

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, I can no longer draw the crowd it takes to remain a commercially viable product in the daytime talk arena. Beyond that, after 29 years and 6,000 shows, I think maybe I’ve had more daytime exposure than is good for the average man. And it also has to be said that most of the people with whom I now compete are much, much younger than I am.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So do you think it’s mostly age that’s made a difference, or do you think the nature of the talk shows has changed and you’re not willing to be quite as sexy or sleazy as some of the other shows are?

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, it’s funny, you know, for the 29 years we’ve been on the air, Donald Wildman came after us 20 years ago, so I’m familiar–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A representative of the religious conservatives.

PHIL DONAHUE: Yes. Who believes that the world is going to hell and talk shows like mine are leading it there. This was the early 70’s. So Bill Bennett and others are late to this protest. I do think–I do think that probably we weren’t as–we didn’t reach as far as some of the other shows have reached in what you would call tabloid journalism, but I bring no judgment to them.

I think, if anything, television could use more revolutionary aggressive and yes, sometimes controversial reaching out than it, that it has done before these illegitimate children came before us in the daytime schedule.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to get back to that, but first, tell us about your first talk show. How did this all get started?

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, our first guest was in 1967, in Dayton, Ohio. We were a local television program. We aired at 10:30 in the morning. It was an hour show, and we had one guest, and people got to call up and say, what for. It was a very hot idea in radio, and we brought it to–two- way radio we brought to television.

Our first guest was Madeleine Murray O’Hare, in Dayton, Ohio, a local show, at 10:30 in the morning, she said that there is no God, there’s no angels, there’s no heaven, when you die, you go to the ground and you biodegrade, and of course, the whole town fell down.

And they certainly knew that the Donahue Show had arrived. We knew that we had to be outrageous then because we were so different, without a band or a desk or a couch. And we continued with this kind of controversy until 10 years later, lo and behold, we were on the air in New York City.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what’s changed since then? You said that it’s harder to keep people interested now; it’s harder to keep the feather afloat, I think is the way you put it. What did you mean?

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, I used to be–we’ve had Bob Dole on the Donahue Show in the 70’s.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve done shows from the Soviet Union. You’ve done all kinds of shows.

PHIL DONAHUE: Yes. We’ve done–we’re very proud of our library. We’d be pleased to have anybody review our work. But I used to be able to say, we’ll be back in a moment, and the people would wait for the commercial and sure enough, two minutes later, I’d be back talking–you can’t do that anymore. We have a tremendously fickle television audience, and everybody in my business is tap dancing a hundred miles an hour to try to figure out what they will watch.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you can’t just say we’ll be back in a minute?

PHIL DONAHUE: You can’t.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have to tease something.

PHIL DONAHUE: You have to say that Elizabeth Farnsworth will jump off a high wire into a glass of water when we come back, and please don’t use that clicker because we want you to watch us. It’s almost begging.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, let’s talk now about the criticism of the daytime talk shows. You’ve even been called, I believe somebody said, you could have been, or you were the godfather of “trash TV.” You find these terms like “trash” and “tabloid” very loaded, don’t you?

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, not only loaded, Elizabeth, but I find them very imprecise. What do we mean? What do we mean? The “Washington Post” on its front page has referred to the sexual status of Steve Forbes’s father. It is out there. It is not only out there, it’s in “Newsweek” and it’s on the front page of the “Washington Post.” Is that trash journalism?

Is that tabloid journalism? There’s a lot of pretense, I think. I think many of the people who look down their noses at us and claim to be the news while we’re not are often doing the same thing. And I think that our problem is that we’re a much, our pictures move and we’re a bigger target.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But looking at your show, in the last couple of weeks, you’ve done something on midwives, on elderly entrepreneurs, and on the crime rate, and in the same period, Sally Jesse Raphael dealt with over-sexed teens, clinging former lovers, and cheating honeymooners. So there is something of a difference. And, and what–you have defended what Sally Jesse Raphael and others do. What is good about what they’re doing?

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, first of all, I think these programs often feature domestic personal grievances that are I think very important to people involved in them. In 1967, we didn’t talk about drug abuse, going into rehab and coming out. Now, Betty Ford talks about that.

Numbers of people come up to me and say, thank you, because of your program I got out of an abusive marriage; thank you, because of your program I came out to my parents, I’m out of the closet and free. And yet, there are our critics who never watch our programs, never watch them. Can you imagine Joe Lieberman sitting and watching Ricki Lake?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He being one of the people who are critical–the Senator from Connecticut.

PHIL DONAHUE: Lieberman, yes, and Bill Bennett–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who was critical of the daytime–

PHIL DONAHUE: Held a press conference. They also have an 800 number and a television spot that you can join their crusade against the cultural rot in daytime television. I just think there’s a lot of heavy breathing for very little–these programs that go too far too often or too vulgar will fall of their own weight. We’re already seeing some evidence of that. I should also tell you, Elizabeth, that the programs you referenced, midwifery and other issues like that, did not do well.

It’s one of the, one of the things I guess you can do when you’re in the 11th hour of your daytime television program. But I would never do those programs if I were starting a television, daytime television program today.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: They didn’t do well because they weren’t exciting enough, sensational enough?

PHIL DONAHUE: I just don’t think the audience is out there in the daytime in large enough numbers to support shows on Gaza or the Balkan War even, although we’ve done both of those issues. It is a–you’re not immediately rewarded for doing them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think about William Bennett’s theory? He’s one of the main critics, as you well know, and the former Secretary of Education. He believes in what he calls “constructive hypocrisy,” and by that, he says that civilization depends on keeping much that should be private under wraps, that it shouldn’t be out in the open. What’s your response to that?

PHIL DONAHUE: I think he wants to sanitize the news. I think you should see the pain. I believe a Pulitzer Prize should be awarded to a photographer who takes a picture of a naked child running from an Napalm blast in the Vietnam War, as a prize was awarded. I think we should–I think the–in many ways you could argue that the daytime talk shows have less pretense. They’re closer to the street and I think reflect in many ways the audience that’s out there.

There is a significant section of our culture that involves young people, many of whom wear their baseball caps backwards, who are having trouble with their girlfriends, their mothers, their fathers, their marriages, their divorces, their children, and this is on daytime television. It is true there are some shows that push people and so produce them that what you get is a rather harsh and not very real review of, of what’s happening in someone’s life.

It is also true that you have a number of people out there, I would say women especially, who come to realize that they are in an abusive domestic situation, and these programs empower them to get out. What’s wrong with that? Do all of these programs deserve a Nobel Prize?

I’m not saying that. But I’m impressed with how the Republicans will not let the marketplace work in this area. Let’s see what happens. Those that go too far too often won’t last very long.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally, Mr. Donahue, what do you plan to do next? I should say, by the way, you’re not retiring until May, is that right?

PHIL DONAHUE: That’s right.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What happens next?

PHIL DONAHUE: Well, I don’t know. I’m 60, too young to retire, and I have a whole plate of options before me, including perhaps doing a program that doesn’t make the kinds of demands that daytime competition does, that might allow me to do more thoughtful programs at a time when we don’t have to worry about having twenty or twenty-five other programs of similar kinds competing with us.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, good luck to you, and thank you for being with us.

PHIL DONAHUE: Thank you, Elizabeth.