The last word from the first man of chat

Without Phil Donahue there would have been no Oprah Winfrey, no Alan Partridge. The king of the TV talk show announced his retirement last week. And on that bombshell, he tells Daniel Jeffreys that a career in politics beckons

Daniel Jeffreys
Friday 26 January 1996 00:02 GMT

Phil Donahue is the godfather of Trash TV, the man who invented the American talk show. When Kilroy rushes into the audience on BBC1, he's following in Phil Donahue's footsteps. Last week, Phil announced that Donahue will appear for the last time in May, ending a run that began 29 years ago.

"We invented the format but it was a complete accident," says Donahue. We're having coffee in New York and he draws curious stares from every direction; his face is one of the most recognisable in America. "We had a new show, me and a guest with a couch and a desk - there was a time when that format was fresh. The studio next door had a show with a live audience and the host fell ill. We just moved our show in there to stop them rioting."

Donahue's guest was a woman and the topic was atheism. "We were working out of Dayton, Ohio. It's a conservative place and the topic drove the audience crazy. During the commercial breaks, I realised they were asking better questions than me, so I just picked up the microphone and walked out into the crowd."

It has taken him three decades to walk back. His show has been forced off the air by declining ratings. Three years ago, Donahue got more than six million viewers a day. Last month, he was down to fewer than two million after NBC dumped him from their New York TV station. "There are now 27 talk shows on the air," he says, ruefully. "Some of them have been prepared to go much further than us, but I'm proud of all my illegitimate children."

It has been a great run. Until 1987, Phil Donahue's show was the champion of daytime talk, with better ratings than any other show. Then came Oprah Winfrey and Donahue fell quickly into second place. Donahue's decline has been the inevitable result of trends he helped to trigger - sensationalism and audience participation that now borders on hysteria. "We did our own share of wacky stuff,' says Donahue, now 60. "I appeared in a dress twice, we had an all-nude panel and I think we even had dwarf-tossing." The show's reputation and nine Emmys were based on more solid material. Donahue was the first talk show to address Aids, he was the first American journalist to visit Chernobyl and, in 1986, he hosted the first talk show broadcast from Russia.

"Television and our audience has changed," he says, loosening his tie - a trademark move. "I used to be able to say, 'We'll be back in a moment' and people would watch the commercial and, sure enough, I'd be back and they would still be there. You can't do that anymore - people don't have the attention span. We have a tremendously fickle TV audience. Everybody in my business is tap-dancing at 100 miles per hour just to hold on."

In the last week, Donahue has tried to stick with his formula. His shows tackled home-delivery, elderly entrepreneurs and the crime rate. Competitor Sally Jesse Raphael (in the UK on Sky One) had oversexed teens, clinging former lovers and honeymooners who cheat.

"I don't criticise them," he says. "I think these programmes often feature domestic personal grievances that are very important to the people involved. In 1967, we didn't talk about drug or alcohol rehabilitation on TV and it was alright for the boss to look down the front of his secretary's blouse whenever he wanted. Now people know there are abuse clinics and women are protected from sexual harassment at work. All of these issues were forced into the public eye by daytime talk shows."

Donahue used to tell women to get out and get a job, says producer Steve Friedman, who scheduled Donahue segments on NBC's Today show in 1979 to lure female viewers. "A lot of them did just that and a lot of people who were watching him in the Seventies are now his competition." This includes Ricki Lake, which is broadcast by Channel Four, and others such as Carnie, hosted by the daughter of Beach Boy Brian Wilson. "They are all about sex but in a strange way," says Donahue. "We have an immature sexuality in this country; we are alternately hysterical, prurient and concerned." In his early days, Donahue's treatment of sex won him attacks from the religious right but they have now moved on to his younger, saucier competitors. As we drank coffee, we looked at the New York Times, which carried a full-page advertisement encouraging consumers to boycott products appearing in commercials run on five different talk shows. "It's strange," he muses. "The right wants a free market when it comes to labour, and if all our jobs end up in Mexico, that's fine, but they don't like the marketplace when it comes to freedom of speech."

Far from decrying the shows that have driven him off TV, Donahue urges them to go further. "I think, if anything, television could use more revolutionary and aggressive reaching out. The talk shows have democratised TV. Before we started, it was an elitist medium; ordinary people never had their say. In the early days, we had snot-nosed producers from Yale or Harvard who said it would be a great job if they didn't have to deal with all these ordinary people, but those people made the show work."

Donahue has some regrets, and he lowers his voice to tell me of one. "We used to do a lot of shows about women who wanted breast enlargements and women who had breast enlargements or who had husbands who wanted them to get enlargements," he says, looking around. "We didn't know then about the problems with the leaks. I worry that through our influence, there are a lot of women wandering around with faulty implants. On the other side, I've had women come up to me and say they got out of an abusive marriage because of my programme or they came out of the closet because of our show."

Oprah Winfrey has paid tribute to Donahue many times. After he announced his retirement, she was straight on the telephone. "I told him that he really opened the door on this genre and that I was eternally grateful for that," she says. "I have said from the very first day of my show that if there hadn't been a Phil, there wouldn't have been a me." Most experts agree. Donahue created an industry that employs more than 5,000 people and last year had revenues of $260m worldwide. That makes Donahue's ambition for his next career all the more surprising. "I think American politics has no vitality because we have no left wing," he says, deep blue eyes flashing beneath that shock of white hair. "I want to be part of reviving the American left. The US has become dominated by enormously powerful corporations. You hear politicians criticise poor people on welfare, but there are corporations like ADM (a large food company) addicted to corporate subsidies, but you never hear about that."

Getting up to leave, people in the coffee house recoil slightly, as if Donahue might suddenly shove a microphone in their faces. After his last remarks, I imagine a talk show entitled "Talk Show Hosts Who Say They Are Raving Commies" and Donahue seems to read my mind. "You can't really do politics on daytime, not with the competition. I had a show last week with presidential candidate Steve Forbes and we were talking about his economic policies. I looked into the audience and this boy with his baseball cap on back to front obviously wanted one of us to put on a dress and confess to some sexual perversion. That's when I realised it was time to go."

There was also a period of depression about a year ago. "I realised the pressure to compete could destroy the medium. The talk show has become an important part of our democracy because it allows the people to speak. But I know some shows script everything that their guests say and sometimes the audience as well. Then there was this couple who appeared on about 10 different shows, once as a couple who couldn't have children and then as relatives who wanted to get married. If that kind of stuff becomes common place, tabloid TV will have no value."

When Donahue steps down in May, he will have done 6,000 shows, and there is not a tabloid topic that has escaped him. He will leave behind his 26 competitors to face threats from the religious right and Republican politicians.

One station in Chicago has dumped talk shows all together and runs ads saying "Tune in - we've taken the trash out." The ploy has won the station a ratings increase. "Tabloid is just a word to describe a hell of a story," says Donahue. "Like OJ Simpson's trial. If tabloid sticks to good stories, it can't be driven away. Tabloid is the people's journalism."

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