Talking Our Ears Off on TV

These days you can't seem to turn on the tube without being confronted by Jerry, Oprah, Ricki or Dr. Phil, all giving solace to (or ridiculing) the same array of dysfunctional families, saucily dressed teens or mismatched couples.

Having the airwaves glutted with too much dirty laundry, a nation collectively throws down the remote and asks: When will we finally hear the last word on talk shows?

"What boundaries do we have left to cross?" media-relations expert Bretton Holmes asked. "There's not a whole lot that hasn't been done."

The newest talk show host on the block is Dr. Phillip C. McGraw, a psychologist who earned a spot on Oprah and then had the best ratings debut since his mentor's when he started his own program.

Some say shows like Dr. Phil are a more highly evolved breed than Jerry Springer, but critics don't see anything new in the tall guy's tough love -- or in any other talk show.

"Dr. Phil is not really giving anybody anything that hasn't already been said," Holmes said from New Braunfels, Texas. "The only difference is that he says it louder."

A spokeswoman for McGraw's show declined to comment for this story.

Holmes contends that audiences flock to talk-show hosts' strong shoulders to cry on because they didn't know any better.

"If you're sitting around home in the afternoon watching Oprah, you probably don't have much else to do," he said.

But psychologist Joe Peraino said talk shows serve a purpose -- a one-sided intimacy -- for many people, and predicted that the TV discussions would be around for a lot longer.

"What makes people happy is to have relationships with somebody, and when you see Oprah or Phil Donahue or Dr. Phil over and over again, you feel a connection with them," he said. "The second thing is that people in the audience are connecting with the problem being dealt with, and … getting a little bit of insight into their own problems."

But he said that, as with most in the media, the next step for talk shows will involve more of the same -- only more intense. In other words, Jerry Springer may look tame in a few years.

"There's an escalation: Look at wrestling," Peraino said. "Why in God's name should wrestling still be on the air? It was getting big when I was a kid and you'd think they'd run out of storylines. But people know it's fake and they still watch it."

It's a world even talk-show hosts don't to look forward to. On a recent Hannity & Colmes, Springer lambasted his own program.

"Well, gosh, I get hungry and I have bills to pay," he said. "And, you know, the show is fun. I mean, I don't mind doing it, but it's not my life's passion."

When asked why he didn't smarten up the show, Springer said, "Because the show is stupid, and if I started talking about serious issues in the middle of the show, no one would take it seriously."

But Danny Bonaduce, one of the hosts of The Other Half, a View-like show where men discuss relationships, said a change is coming in the talk-show format.

"Revolution is a requirement. It almost has to happen," he said during a telephone interview. "It's not like we have any choice not to evolve, and I think it's a frustrating time when Jerry Springer's still on television and Donahue can't find an audience."

Yet even he admitted that the trashier and sappier shows seem to be well-entrenched.

"I don't personally know anybody who watches those shows, but there's certainly an audience for them," he said.

After a moment, he added, "But I do watch The Osbournes and Anna Nicole Smith. I'm part of that same crowd, and I think Anna Nicole Smith is directly responsible for the decline of Western civilization."

But Holmes predicted that Dr. Phil and his cohorts would go the way of the vitriolic Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

"We're already starting to see a lot of them not being renewed every season," he said.

And so civilization may yet breathe a sigh of relief, thanks to, of all people, network executives.