Separating the trash from the class

Even fewer people probably would admit to watching daytime television talk shows than they would to tuning into "Melrose Place." Yet, the shows -- Jerry Springer, Leeza, Sally, Oprah, etc. -- are watched by millions.

Television critics and pop-culture pundits wince at the shows for their vulgarity, and many express concern for what they consider the duped guests who are unexpectedly exploited onstage.

Most of the time, that kind of thinking is not only misguided, it can be downright condescending, according to Laura Grindstaff, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, who is writing a book on her research, "Airing Dirty Laundry: The Production of 'Trash' and 'Class' on Daytime Television Talk Shows."

To get a feel for how the shows operate, Grindstaff spent two of her graduate school years interning on two national shows (which she won't name), where she conducted a slew of interviews with producers, guests and others in the industry.

"The Jerry Springer Show," which recently dethroned "classy" Oprah as No. 1, is considered one of the "trashier" daytime gab fests.

Photo courtesy of the Jerry Springer Show

"To enter the world of daytime talk shows was to enter a world in which academics have little engagement, either as viewers or guests," Grindstaff said. "Most people I knew were horrified by daytime talk, and were at a loss to explain its attraction for participants. At the same time, they were fascinated by talk shows, and by my investigation behind the scenes -- it was if I had infiltrated a cult or underground drug ring."

Her findings illustrate a similarity between daytime talk and television news gathering in that both give access to "ordinary" people, who are usually denied such access. However, to gain that access, the non-expert, non-celebrity guests have to jump through some hoops -- ordinary people in extraordinary situations who are willing to bare all for the viewing audience.

Most importantly, these guests have to be capable and willing to deliver what Grindstaff calls "the money shot" -- "that moment of raw emotion from the angry denunciation to the tearful confession, the visible display of anger or sorrow or joy or remorse that makes daytime talk simultaneously trashy and compelling; the more emotional and volatile the guest, the trashier they are."

The term "money shot" is lifted from pornographic films, referring to that moment of climax where the film proves the action is real. Grindstaff uses the term precisely for that connotation, since so many equate the talk shows with porn anyway.

"It is the money shot, more than anything else, that has positioned talk show guests in popular consciousness as trailer-park trash from middle America -- below even talk show viewers, who retain some vestige of dignity by remaining distanced voyeurs," Grindstaff said.

Her research also explores at length the various reasons people go on the shows, from furthering their own agendas to less lofty goals like just wanting to get on TV. Grindstaff also explores production tactics and techniques of producers; high- and low-culture designations; the gentrification of Oprah Winfrey, who Grindstaff said wasn't always the "queen of class" and should stop being disingenuous about it; the Jenny Jones murder scandal and its effect on the medium; and, of course, the shows themselves.

"Categorizing is tough," Grindstaff admitted, but she named the "classiest" show hosts: former talk god Phil Donahue, Oprah, Leeza, Maury Povich, and Geraldo (after the Jenny Jones fiasco). And the trashiest? Jenny Jones, Rikki Lake, Richard Bey, Sally Jessy, and, of course, Jerry Springer.

Originally published on March 19, 1998