Is the daytime talk-show dead?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 2 2010 7:07 AM

Is the Daytime Talk-Show Dead?

Tyra Banks seems to think so.

Tyra Banks. Click image to expand.
Tyra Banks

The last Tyra Banks Show aired on Friday. The syndicated talk-show finale was oddly muted, given the former supermodel's penchant for theatrics. On earlier seasons of the show, Tyra has shouted "Kiss my fat ass!" to the tabloids that mocked a photograph of her in an unflattering bathing suit, worn a fat costume to experience discrimination against the obese firsthand, and asked Hillary Clinton about her cellulite. This time, she showed some highlights and told viewers about her plans for the future, which include writing a series of fantasy novels about models with superpowers called Modelland and producing scripted TV shows with her production company, called Bankable. About her post-talk-show strategy, Tyra said during Tuesday's episode, "Television is a-changing, so you know what? I'm changing with it."

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Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

At first glance, it seems strange that Banks would ankle her successful talk show while its ratings were still solid: Around 1.56 million people were watching during an average minute of the Tyra show this season, up from about 1.45 million last season, according to the Nielsen Company. It is particularly surprising that Tyra would give up the talk-show game just as Oprah Winfrey (one of Tyra's idols—she once described herself to the New York Post as "Oprah with more cleavage") is set to retire next year. Some speculated that this would be Tyra's chance to slide into Oprah's place as the most powerful woman on daytime TV.

But "America's Next Top Mogul" is a shrewd businesswoman, and if you take a look at the state of syndicated talk shows in general, it makes sense that Tyra doesn't think they have much of a future. Viewership of daytime talk-shows has gone down in the past decade. The confessional model that Tyra uses and that Oprah helped pioneer, in which each episode tackles a single issue—like, say, cougars or emotional abuse—by discussing the problems of noncelebrity guests, is particularly out of fashion. Paul McGuire, a CW spokesman, says that the network does not have plans to replace Tyra with another chat show. "After the end of the originals we'll be running a best of the Tyra Banks talk show and anything beyond that is TBD," McGuire says.

Fifteen years ago, the syndicated, confessional talk-show was everywhere. In 1995, Oprah wasn't the only one hosting sex addicts and the people who love them: Ricki Lake, Montel Williams, Jenny Jones, Sally Jessy Raphael, Leeza Gibbons, Maury Povich, Phil Donahue, Richard Bey, and Jerry Springer, were among those wrenching confessions from their guests. While stalwarts at the trashier end of the spectrum like Povich and Springer remain, there are far fewer confessional talk shows than there used to be—but why?

Part of the shift away from talk shows has to do with the rise of reality TV, which began to take over the televised confessional in the early aughts. These new shows offered revelations, drama, and an opportunity for the viewing audience to judge without a host shaping the proceedings. Plus, with reality shows you get to watch these individuals for several episodes. "People are hungry to see people grow and change over the years," says Dominick Pupa, who worked as a producer on the Jenny Jones, Ricki Lake, and Maury Povich shows, explaining the appeal of shows like the Real Housewives series.

Pupa, who also worked as a producer of the New York City iteration of Real Housewives, thinks that the beginning of the decline of confessional talk shows began with the murder of a Jenny Jones Show guest. Scott Amedure had appeared on Jones' show in 1995 to reveal his same-sex crush on Jonathan Schmitz—and Schmitz killed him three days later. "It became less cool to watch those shows," Pupa says. The incident lent a lurid air to daytime talk shows, and made the hosts seem prurient and irresponsible. Reality TV was arguably no more responsible, but at least the participants seemed to be speaking for themselves.

Eventually, the talk show format began to seem "dated and tired," wrote Dr. Sherryl Wilson, the author of Oprah, Celebrity and Formations of Self and a senior lecturer at the University of the West of England in an e-mail. To succeed, a host needed more than just confessions. He or she needed to offer up celebrities or a stand-up routine or the ability to teach the viewers something. The very popularEllen DeGeneres Show also has celebrity guests and uses more of a late-night format with its comedian hostess and an opening monologue. Daytime divas Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart both have celebrity guests and the added element of domestic DIY—they teach their viewers how to cook and craft. Dr. Oz offers his viewers medical advice and information along with banter.

The genre is not completely dead. Rosie O'Donnell has a talk show in the works, and she's gunning for Oprah's confessional-talk-show throne. O'Donnell told the New York Times in March that she wished to "build on what Oprah began and excelled at for 25 years, in my own style and with new adaptations and ideas." However, it's worth noting that one of O'Donnell's recent television hosting gigs—a variety show—was a ratings flop, and that she provoked a lot of controversy when she was on The View from 2005-2007. The Times' Brian Stelter writes that O'Donnell's "producers will probably have to contend with risk-averse stations and skittish advertisers."

The successes of Tyra's talk show and her America's Next Top Model franchise prove that she's a keen observer of what people—young women in particular—want out of their media. Banks took great pride in announcing during her final show that she was still consistently No.1 among women ages 18 to 34. If she thinks that confessional talk shows are no longer the best way to reach a female audience, I'm inclined to believe her.

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