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American Television, Talk Shows  
 
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Donahue's project of making visible ideas and subjects that had been previously invisible on television neatly coincided with the burgeoning, late-1960s gay rights movement. His show served as an invaluable format for public education about the different varieties of queer presence. His show helped "normalize" gay men and lesbians in the minds of millions of middle-class housewives, who were his primary audience.

A late 1970s Donahue episode, for example, featured sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who talked with Phil and his audience about their book Homosexuality in Perspective. This show in particular provided scientific refutation of several myths about homosexuality, and asserted many similarities between heterosexuals and homosexuals.

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Later Donahue shows would stress the need for tolerance, understanding, acceptance, and a respect for individuality, values that Donahue himself seemed to embrace. His show came to be viewed as a safe space for discussing homosexual issues such as coming out and . His show featured a gay wedding and discussed whether homosexuality might be transmitted genetically. His was also the first daytime show to focus attention on the mysterious disease that would later be known as AIDS.

This is not to say, however, that Donahue shows were always queer friendly. Sometimes Donahue would resort to sensationalism in order to provoke controversy. An episode about cross-dressing in which Donahue appeared in a pink and black skirt unleashed a torrent of criticism, both from conservatives who charged that he was glorifying transvestism and from queers who accused Donahue of sensationalizing and demeaning cross-dressers.

For the most part, however, Donahue demonstrated a genuine commitment to destroying stereotypes. Even though his show courted controversy, it never degenerated into the "freak shows" that would become the mainstay of talk shows in the 1980s and 1990s. According to Gamson, the show's producers sought guests from stigmatized groups who would present as normal and well-adjusted a face as possible.

Until the mid-1980s Phil Donahue was the sole practitioner of audience-centered, issues-oriented talk on television. With the debuts of Sally Jessy Raphael in 1985 and The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986, television talk turned away from issues and focused more on titillation and personality. The approach of these shows leaned more towards public talk as personal confession and therapy, and the emphasis turned from contentious debate to rancorous, hostile confrontation. This format became increasingly popular well into the 1990s, and led to the creation of what many television viewers considered trash TV.

Talking Trash

While Donahue's audience was, as he frequently declared, atypically liberal, the studio participants for shows like Sally Jessy, Oprah Winfrey, and the 1987 series Geraldo, hosted by former 20/20 reporter Geraldo Rivera, were often quite hostile and much less tolerant than the shows' hosts.

The guest format, however, initially remained unchanged, as gay and lesbian guests continued being recruited through mainstream organizations. As the audiences became increasingly hostile and vocal, however, the shows' guests also became more outspoken and more outrageous.

In 1987 former radio talk show host Morton Downey, Jr.'s combative program entered the airwaves. Downey, a right-wing conservative, had little time or patience for liberals of any stripe, routinely dismissing them as "scumbuckets" or "pablum pukers."

Angela Gardner, a spokesperson for the cross-dressing group Renaissance Education Association, appeared on a 1989 episode and described the experience as akin to "a root canal without an anesthetic." She noted that Downey craved controversy, openly turned his audience against the guests, and often threw guests off the set.

Although Downey's television show lasted only two years, he deserves the dubious credit of being considered the father of trash talk. His loud, raucous format dealt a fatal blow to informative talk shows such as Donahue. In Downey's wake, many of the previously low-key shows such as Sally Jessy Raphael and Geraldo abruptly changed their approach and, in so doing, turned up the volume of their talk.

An early 1990s episode of Sally Jessy Raphael, for instance, showcased a panel on the topic "My husband left me because he's gay." The wronged party in this show, the wife, described to a sympathetic audience how she became physically ill when she saw her husband with another man. She described her ex-husband's lover as "a flaming faggot" and accused her husband of being "a faggot and a liar." When the ex-husband tried to defend himself, both the studio audience and the host vilified him--explicitly for his deceit and implicitly for his sexuality.

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