Tabloid television, or as critics refer to it, “Trash TV,” is made up of abrasive talk shows that set up confrontations and consciously try to be controversial and shocking. Despite being panned for their lowbrow nature and appealing to the lowest common denominator, tabloid talk shows have struck a chord with television audiences and have been popular for the past 50 years.
10. Phil Donahue
After graduating from Notre Dame in 1957, Phil Donahue went to work at a radio station in Cleveland. In 1963, he started one of the first radio talk shows, and in 1967 tried his hand at television with The Phil Donahue Show (later shortened to Donahue). His talk show format, which was targeted at “women who think,” was radical at the time because a big part of the show involved interacting with the studio audience. Audience members were able to ask questions or talk with guests and Donahue was more of a moderator than traditional talk show host. In 1972, the show went into national syndication and became hugely popular, forever changing the landscape of talk shows. For the first nine years it was on, Donahue won nine Daytime Emmys for Best Talk Show Host.
The show had rather taboo topics for the time; for example, the first guest on the show was an atheist. But it also covered other topics that were considered taboo, but in hindsight, were rather important to talk about, like women’s health. Donahue managed to stay on the air for almost 30 years, before getting cancelled in 1996. The problem was that the imitators of Donahue were willing to be more outrageous than him, and people simply weren’t watching his show anymore. Donahue went into retirement until July 2002, when MSNBC resurrected Donahue, but it was cancelled after eight months due to poor ratings.
9. Sally Jessy Raphael
After getting her degree in broadcasting from Columbia, Raphael (whose real name is Sally Lowenthal), went to work in Puerto Rico as a correspondent. After that, she came back to the United States to work in broadcasting. Over the course of three years, she was fired 18 times and she, her three children, and her husband/manager moved around a lot, sometimes sleeping in their car. In 1969, she finally landed steady work as both a morning anchor and an afternoon radio newscaster in Miami. In 1976, she moved to New York, where her popularity started to grow with audiences nationwide with her radio call-in show.
When Raphael was filling in as a substitute for a daytime talk show host in Cleveland, she caught the attention of Phil Donahue’s producer. He gave Raphael a chance with her own half hour talk show located in St. Louis. The Sally Jessy Raphael Show went on the air on October 17, 1983, and within six months, the show became nationally syndicated. She was a pioneer for women in the talk show industry, helping pave the way for the likes of Oprah (whose show debuted the following year).
Raphael, whose trademark red framed glasses became instantly recognizable, was known for taking a liberal stance on many topics like homosexuality, abortion, and premarital sex. This, of course, did not sit well with conservatives during the Reagan era. In the end, Raphael stayed on the air until 2002, when her show was cancelled.
8. Jenny Jones
In 1991, when The Jenny Jones Show went on the air, the daytime talk show circuit was pretty crowded. The host, Jenny Jones, was a comedian who became famous for her Girl’s Night Out comedy act that banned men from coming in. When the show started, Jones explained that it would be “part pajama party, part group therapy, part Oprah.” But, like many shows of the 1990s, after two years of low ratings, the show started to push the envelope. They started doing paternity tests, confronted bullies, and revealed secret crushes. While the show wasn’t anything groundbreaking, it was pioneering for an event that happened because of the show. It was a collision of “it’s only television” and the fact that the guests on tabloid shows are real people.
The controversial show was recorded on March 6, 1995, and was called “Same Sex Secret Crushes.” On the show, a gay man named Scott Amedure told an associate, Jonathan Schmitz, that he had a crush on him. Schmitz went on the show knowing he had a secret admirer, but was led to believe that it was a woman. At the time, Schmitz didn’t seem to be upset by the news, but said he wasn’t gay himself. That night, Amedure, Schmitz, and a mutual friend drank together. The friend claimed that after the taping, Amedure and Schmitz had a sexual encounter, but Schmitz denies that. Three days later, they were back home and Schmitz found a sexually suggestive letter from Amedure. After finding the letter, Schmitz bought a shotgun, went to Amedure’s house and shot him twice in the chest, killing him. In a 911 call, Schmitz blamed the show for the murder. After the murder, the episode was never aired.
At Schmitz’s trial, it was revealed he had a history of mental illness. He was given 25-50 years in 1996. Amedure’s family also sued The Jenny Jones Show and were awarded $25 million in 1999. The show was canceled in 2001, and Jones now hosts a cooking show.
7. Maury Povich
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in television journalism, Maury Povich started working as a reporter and newscaster in Washington, DC. In 1986, he became the host of a new tabloid news show, A Current Affair. Then in 1991, Povich got his first chance at hosting his own talk show, The Maury Povich Show, which ran for seven years. During that time, the climate of tabloid television was changing drastically and shows were given the choice: either follow the flow and dumb the show down, or lose in the ratings. Maury chose to devolve and the show, now just called Maury, re-launched in 1998 with the first show being “Who’s Your Daddy?” The use of DNA results would be one of their most common and popular shows. Other shows often feature lie detector tests, makeovers, possessive men, and wild teens.
Since changing the format, Maury has been a staple of the daytime talk show circuit and Povich is a pop culture icon, known for his famous expression when announcing the results of the paternity test. One of the most mind blowing things about Maury is that he was born in 1939, meaning that as he heads into the show’s 18th season in the fall of 2015, he will be 76-years-old.The show was renewed in 2014 for four more years.
6. Chuck Barris
Chuck Barris got his start in television in 1960 as the assistant to American Bandstand host Dick Clark. In 1965, Barris borrowed $20,000 from his stepfather and produced a pilot for his show The Dating Game. The game show involved a bachelor or bachelorette, who would ask three eligible single people behind a wall a series of question. The contestant would then pick one of them, and they would go on some elaborate date together. The show aired on December 20, 1965, on ABC and it was an instant hit. The next year, Barris made a show to pair with The Dating Game called The Newlywed Game, where newly married couples were asked questions to see how much they knew about each other. It was also a big hit.
But the show that Barris struck trash gold with was The Gong Show in 1976. It was a “talent” show that was hosted by Barris himself. The premise of the show was that people performed an act for three celebrity judges. If the performance got to be unwatchable, a judge could bang a large gong to put an end to the act. One very notable controversy happened in 1978 when two 17-year-old girls came out, sat crossed legged on the floor and very suggestively ate a popsicle. No one rang the gong, but two out of the three judges gave them low marks. Singer and actress Jaye P. Morgan gave them 10 out of 10, saying that was how she got started as well.
While The Gong Show was not a tabloid talk show like the other shows on this list, it was revolutionary in the fact that it used people that really didn’t have any talent. Many people went on the show and completely made fools of themselves in front of a national audience. This idea would of course be mined later for tabloid shows that would come later, not to mention shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent.
Barris also published an autobiography called Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, in which he claimed that the entire time he was a television producer, he was also a CIA hitman. The book was adapted into a film in 2002, directed by George Clooney and starring Sam Rockwell as Barris.
5. Geraldo Rivera
Brooklyn native Geraldo Rivera got a law degree in 1969, but instead of entering the legal profession, he became a TV news reporter for New York’s WABC-TV. His breakout moment was in 1972, when he did an exposé on abuse against mentally disabled children at the Willowbrook School on Staten Island. From there, he went on to be a contributor for national news programs before joining 20/20 in 1978. He would only stay there for two years before he was fired over a disagreement about a story.
In 1987, Rivera got his own talk show, Geraldo, and it quickly gained notoriety for its controversial topics and guests. The most notable incident happened on November 3, 1988, on a show called “Teen Hatemongers.” On the heated show, a young man named John Metzger, who was the leader of the White Aryan Resistance Youth and the son of infamous white supremacist Tom Metzger, insulted Roy Innis, an African American man who was the national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality. Metzger said, “I’m sick and tired of Uncle Tom here, sucking up and trying to be a white man.” So Innis stood up, walked over and strangled Metzger. This led to a brawl where chairs were thrown and Geraldo’s nose was broken during the melee. When asked about the incident, Geraldo said that if there was ever a time for violence, that was it.
The brawl made national headlines and also gave the ratings a huge boost, because news of the brawl was made public before the episode aired. This brawl would of course lay the foundation for another, very controversial show just years later. And yes, we’ll get to that one soon enough. Geraldo was cancelled in 1998 and he is currently a contributor to FoxNews.
4. Les Crane
After graduating from Tulane University and serving in the Air Force, Les Crane started off his career in broadcasting in the early 1960s as one of the first “shock jocks” on the radio. While tame by today’s standards, Crane would take calls from all over the West Coast of the United States and had no problem insulting and dismissing certain callers’ points of view; even going as far to hang up on some of them.
In 1963, Night Line… With Les Crane, later changed to The Les Crane Show, was first broadcast on ABC, at the 1:00 a.m. time slot. On the show, Crane was confrontational with guests that he didn’t agree with, but he also was pretty hip and cutting edge. For example, he was the first host in the United States to interview the Rolling Stones, and when Bob Dylan was 23-years-old, he appeared on the show and performed three songs. Crane also interviewed Randy Wicker, the first openly gay male on television. He also had some provocative newsmakers like Malcolm X, Governor George Wallace, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
Crane’s show was popular, and in June 1965, he was moved up to 11:30 p.m. to compete against Johnny Carson. Crane, who was just 30 at the time, never really found an audience and was cancelled just a few months later. After losing to Carson, Crane tried another talk show (which also failed), and had some small acting parts. In 1980, he became the chairman of a successful computer software company called Software Toolworks, and passed away at the age of 74 in July 2008.
3. Joe Pyne
Joe Pyne served in World War II, and an injury led to part of his leg being amputated. In 1954, he got his start in television and by 1964, his television show was syndicated in 84 cities. On top of that, his hour long radio show was syndicated in 450 cities.
On his show, Pyne would chain smoke behind a news desk, not unlike Edward R. Murrow, but instead of asking questions, Pyne would actively look for confrontation and often found it. Pyne was one of the first people on TV to argue from his own viewpoint instead of being unbiased, which led to him openly insulting his guests while being cheered on by his studio audience. As for his guests, he would find the most extreme and outrageous people of the day, like the head of the Church of Satan or a man who had been married 17 times. As for why Pyne would argue with his guests, he said that he didn’t respect anyone who would agree to be on his show. We’re not sure if he was including himself in that statement, of course.
Pyne’s show ran until November 1969, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died at the age of 45 on March 23, 1970.
2. Morton Downey Jr.
In the fall of 1987, a new talk show aired on a local TV station in Secaucus, New Jersey. The show was similar to what Sally Jessy Raphael and Phil Donahue were doing, but the host was a combination of Les Crane and Joe Pyne. That man was 55-year-old Morton Downey Jr.: a chain smoking right winger who screamed, swore, and even got physical with his guests. The show was popular locally and went national a year later. The Morton Downey Jr. Show became a huge hit, mainly because Downey was loud, belligerent, and unapologetic. In fact, the show’s logo was a big mouth. Downey justified his show saying that yelling and confrontation was how a lot of Americans were raised.
When Downey had a guest on his show that he disagreed with (which was many of them), he would scream and blow cigarette smoke in their face while he was cheered on by his near rabid studio audience, which he called “The Beast.” Downey was completely open about his hostility to immigrants, gays, feminists and anyone with liberal leanings.
One notable guest that Downey had on many times was Al Sharpton, who made a name for himself on the show. An interesting story involving Downey and Sharpton was the case of Tawana Brawley. She was a black teenager, who was found wrapped in a plastic bag on the roadside in New York State in November 1987. Someone had written racial epitaphs on her body and she was covered in feces. She claimed she had been raped by a group of white officers. Her story made national headlines when Sharpton took up her cause. Downey confronted Sharpton over the validity of the story, and it turned out Brawley had set the whole thing up.
This story would prove to be important in the downfall of Downey, which started in 1989. It was hard booking guests for the show, because no one wanted to go on a show where they would be yelled at and insulted by Morton while he was being cheered on. It was great for the audience; not so much for the guests. In the summer of 1989, in a desperate attempt for ratings, Downey hosted a show at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, where he had a group of white supremacists “debate” representatives of the African American community (it was more of a screaming match than debate). A short time later, in San Francisco, Downey was found in a bathroom stall in an airport with a bruise on his face, his hair cut, and swastikas drawn on him with felt markers. Downey claimed that a group of skinheads attacked him. He even passed a polygraph, but all evidence indicated that Downey faked the attack. His show was cancelled shortly afterwards and a year later, he filed for bankruptcy.
In 1996, Downey was diagnosed with lung cancer and he immediately changed his stance on smoking, becoming a spokesperson for the American Lung Association. He passed away in 2001 at the age of 68. Downey is also the subject of the documentary Évocateur.
1. Jerry Springer
We’ve hinted at him through the whole list, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Jerry Springer is number one. The man is synonymous with trash television, and he seemingly embraces being king of rock bottom.
Born on February 13, 1944, to parents who escaped the Holocaust, Springer came to the United States when he was five-years-old. By 1968, he had his Juris Doctor, and that’s when he met Robert Kennedy, who was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. Shortly after the meeting, Springer started working on Kennedy’s campaign, but a few months after joining, Kennedy was assassinated.
Working with Kennedy encouraged Springer to get into politics. He ran for Congress in Ohio, but lost. In 1971, he won a seat on the Cincinnati city council, where he served for five terms. He even survived a sex scandal in 1974 when it was discovered that he had been with a prostitute (he paid with a personal check). In 1977, he became the youngest mayor in Cincinnati’s history. After losing the election for governor of Ohio in 1982, he was approached by a number of television stations to do a talk show.
In 1991, The Jerry Springer Show debuted and, at first, it covered political topics. Then in 1994, in order to boost ratings, a new producer from the tabloid The Weekly World News was brought in to adjust the show. Springer’s new premise was simple: bring out someone, have them reveal a secret, and then let the guests physically fight each other. The show was a hit and a cultural phenomenon for being so outrageous. In May 1998, The Jerry Springer Show became the number one show in the May sweeps, putting an end to Oprah’s 10 year run on top. The show was so popular, it even led to a horrible movie and an opera. Astonishingly, it also managed to lead to a talk show for Springer’s large, bald, and popular security guard on the show, Steve Wilkos (of course, the fact that Wilkos married Springer’s executive producer in 2000 probably helped him land his own show, too).
In 1999, the show was forced to stop showing violence. It was during this time that violence on TV was a hot button issue in the wake of the Columbine shooting. Yet, the show remained popular and is still on the air. The ban on violence seems to have been lifted and it’s as raunchy and trashy as it’s ever been. It is scheduled to be on the air until at least 2018.
Robert Grimminck is a Canadian freelance writer. You can friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, follow him on Pinterest or visit his website. He is also a huge fan of the Maury show and watches it every weekday. Really.