The Culture of Talk Shows
If social order is not a given, if it is not encoded in our DNA, then to some extent we are always in the process of producing “virtual realities,” some more functional than others.
Habits, routines, and institutions are the patterns that create the “world taken for granted.” Knowledge of how to behave is contained in cultural scripts that are themselves products of human interaction and communication about the nature of “reality.” Shame, guilt, embarrassment are controlling feelings that arise from “speaking the unspeakable” and from violating cultural taboos. Society is a result of its boundaries,of what it will and won’t allow.
As we watch, listen, and are entertained, TV talk shows are rewriting our cultural scripts, altering our perceptions, our social relationships, and our relationships to the natural world. TV talk shows offer us a world of blurred boundaries. Cultural distinctions between public and private, credible and incredible witnesses, truth and falseness, good and evil, sickness and irresponsibility, normal and abnormal, therapy and exploitation, intimate and stranger, fragmentation and community are manipulated and erased for our distraction and entertainment.
A community in real time and place exhibits longevity, an interdependence based on common interests, daily concerns, mutual obligations, norms, kinship, friendship, loyalty, and local knowledge, and real physical structures, not just shared information. If your neighbor’s house is on fire, you are motivated to help put it out, or at least interested in having it put out, because you care about your neighbor and the fire is a threat to your own house. Television talk shows create an ersatz community, without any of the social and personal responsibilities that are attached to real life.
Therapy as entertainment is the appeal of these shows. The so-called hosts rely on the cynical use of the therapeutic model for psychological sound bites. The need to educate and inform the audience is the voiced rationale for getting the so-called guests to give ever more titillating details of their misdeeds, or of the misdeeds done to them by family or friends (often not on the show).
The underlying assumption — that most social pathology is the result of a medical problem beyond the control of t…
…rs. Traditional expectations of polite formalities and barriers are constantly breached within the action of the play. The husband, at one point says, “Aww, that was nice, I think we’ve been having a, a real good evening, all things considered. We’ve sat around, and got to know each other, and had fun and games . . .”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, however disconcerting to the audience, is just a play with actors. Television talk shows are arenas for real people. Their manipulation by “hosts,” who alternate between mocking, a patronizing cynicism (“I want to be as smart as you someday” — Phil), and a carefully constructed verisimilitude of caring (“Thank you for sharing that with us” — Oprah) must have repercussions for the “guests” after the show is over. These people may really be seeking help or understanding. Appropriate reactions seem virtually impossible under the circumstances. We the viewing audience have entertained ourselves at the disasters of real lives.
This is one of the more shameless aspects of the talk show spectacle. As passive witnesses, we consume others’ misfortunes without feeling any responsibility to do anything to intervene.