DONAHUE, PHIL

U.S. Talk-Show Host

In recent years, the talk show has become the most profitable, prolific, and contested format on daytime television. The sensationalist nature of many of these shows has spawned much public debate over the potential for invasion of personal privacy and the exploitation of sensitive social issues. In this environment, Phil Donahue, who is widely credited with inventing the talk show platform, appears quite tame. But in the late 1960s, when The Phil Donahue Show first aired on WLW-D in Dayton, Ohio, Donahue was considered a radical and scintillating addition to the daytime scene.

Working at the college station KYW as a production assistant, Donahue had his first opportunity to test his on-air abilities when the regular booth announcer failed to show up. He claims it was then that he became "hooked" on hearing the transmission of his own voice. The position he took after graduation, News Director for a Michigan radio station, allowed him to try his hand at broadcast reporting and eventually led to work as a stringer for CBS Evening News and an anchor position at WHIO-TV in Dayton in the late 1950s. There he first entered the talk show arena with his radio show Conversation Piece, on which he interviewed civil rights activists (including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X) and war dissenters.

After leaving WHIO and a subsequent three month stint as a salesman, the general manager of WLW-D convinced Donahue to host a call-in TV talk show. The show would combine the talk radio format with television interview show. However The Phil Donahue Show would start with two major disadvantages: a small budget and geographic isolation from the entertainment industries, preventing it from garnering star guests. In order to attract their audience, Donahue and his producers had to innovate--they focused on issues rather than fame.

The first guest on The Phil Donahue Show was Madalyn O'Hair, an atheist who felt that religion "breeds dependence" and who was ready to mount a campaign to ban prayer in public schools. During that same week in November 1967 the show featured footage of a woman giving birth, a phone-in vote on the morality of an anatomically correct male doll, and a funeral director extolling the workings of his craft. The bold nature of these topics was tempered by Donahue's appealing personality. He was one of the first male television personalities to exude characteristics of "the sensitive man" (traits and behaviors further popularized in the 1970s by actors such as Alan Alda), acquired through his interest in both humanism and feminism.

Donahue's affinity with the women's movement, his sincere style, and his focus on controversial topics attracted a large and predominately female audience. He told a Los Angeles Times Reporter in 1992, that his show "got lucky because we discovered early on that the usual idea of women's programming was a narrow, sexist view. We found that women were interested in a lot more than covered dishes and needlepoint. The determining factor [was], 'Will the woman in the fifth row be moved to stand up and say something?' And there's a lot that will get her to stand up." Donahue attempted to "move" his audience in a number of ways, but the most controversial approach involved educating women on matters of reproduction. Shows on abortion, birthing techniques, and a discussion with Masters and Johnson were all banned by certain local affiliates. According to Donahue's autobiography, WGN in Chicago refused to air a show on reverse vasectomy and tubal ligation because it was "too educational for women...and too bloody." Nevertheless, Donahue's proven success with such a lucrative target audience led to the accumulation of other major midwest markets as well as the show's eventual move to Chicago in 1974 and then to New York in 1985. By then the range of topics had broadened considerably, even to include live "space bridge" programs. Co-hosted with Soviet newscaster Vladimir Pozner, these events linked U.S. and Soviet citizens for live exchanges on issues common to both groups.

But by the 1980s, the increasing popularity of Donahue had led to a proliferation of local and nationally syndicated talk shows. As competition increased, the genre became racier, with less emphasis on issues and more on personal scandal. Donahue retained his niche in the market by dividing the show's focus, dabbling in both the political and the personal. He was able to provide interviews with political candidates, explorations of the AIDs epidemic, and revelations of the savings and loan crisis, alongside shows on safe-sex orgies, cross-dressing, and aging strippers.

In 1992, with 19 Emmy Awards under his belt, Donahue was celebrated by his fellow talk show hosts on his 25th anniversary special as a mentor and kindly patriarch of the genre. Fellow talk show host Maury Povich was quoted in Broadcasting as saying at the event "He's the granddaddy of us all and he birthed us all." Until 1996 Phil Donahue still broadcast out of New York where he lives with his second wife actress Marlo Thomas. Early in that year he announced it would be his last. Ratings for Donahue were declining and a number of major stations, including his New York affiliate, had chosen to drop the show from their schedules. In the spring of 1996 Donahue taped his final show, an event covered on major network news casts, complete with warm sentiment, spraying Champagne, and expected, yet undoubted, sincerity. The ending of this hugely successful run for a syndicated program no doubt presaged new career developments for Phil Donahue in television.

-Sue Murray

 


Phil Donahue
Photo courtesy of Phil Donahue

PHIL (PHILLIP) JOHN DONAHUE. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A., 21 December 1935. Educated at the University of Notre Dame, B.B.A., 1957. Married: 1) Marge Cooney, 1958 (divorced, 1975); children: Michael, Kevin, Daniel, Jim, Maryrose; 2) actress Marlo Thomas, 1980. Began career as announcer, KYW-TV and AM, Cleveland, 1957; bank check sorter, Albuquerque, New Mexico; news director, WABJ radio, Adrian, Michigan; morning newscaster, WHIO-TV, where interviews with Jimmy Hoffa and Billy Sol Estes were picked up nationally; hosted Conversation Piece, phone-in talk show, 1963-67; debuted The Phil Donahue Show, Dayton, Ohio, 1967, syndicated two years later; relocated to Chicago, 1974-85; host, Donahue, 1974-96; relocated to New York City, 1985. Recipient: numerous Emmy Awards; Best Talk Show Host, 1988; Margaret Sanger Award, Planned Parenthood, 1987; Peabody Award, 1980. Address: Donahue Multimedia Entertainment, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 827, New York, New York, 10112.

TELEVISION

1969-74 The Phil Donahue Show (from Dayton, Ohio) 1974-85 Donahue (from Chicago)
1985-96 Donahue (from New York)

PUBLICATIONS

Donahue: My Own Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.

Haley, Kathy. "Talking with Phil" (interview). Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 2 November 1992.

The Human Animal, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Unger, Arthur. "I Cannot Be the BBC in an MTV World!" (interview). Television Quarterly (New York), Spring 1991.

FURTHER READING

Carbaugh, Donald A. Talking American: Cultural Discourses on Donahue. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing, 1988.

Haley, Kathy. "From Dayton to the World: A History of the Donahue Show." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 2 November 1992.

Heaton, Jeanne Albronda, and Nona Leigh Wilson. Tuning in Trouble: Talk TV's Destructive Impact on Mental Health. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 1995.

Kurtz, Howard. "Father of the Slide." The New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 12 February 1996.

McConnell, Frank. "What Hath Phil Wrought?" Commonweal (New York), 22 March 1996.

Mifflin, Laurie. "The Price of Being Earnest." The New York Times, 21 January 1996.

Priest, Patricia Joyner. Public Intimacies: Talk Show Participants and Tell All TV. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton, 1995.

 

See also Talk Shows