On Dec. 21, a person who got their start right here in the Miami Valley turns 80. This individual was seen as the father of his craft; a man who literally turned the television medium on its head. This man is Phil Donahue.
Starting back on Nov. 6, 1967, on WLWD (now WDTN) in Dayton, The Phil Donahue Show took the airwaves. I doubt very few people expected the show to last for 29 years and move from Dayton to Chicago to New York. By 1974, “The Phil Donahue Show” was a television phenomenon as it was broadcast across the country.
It’s hard to say that “The Phil Donahue Show” was the first talk show in history. Other shows, such as “The Merv Griffin Show,” paraded celebrities and sports figures in front of an audience and the host and guest would engage in usually friendly banter.
Mr. Donahue’s show broke the mold. Phil would not only have celebrities, but he would also host some of the most controversial figures. In fact, his first guest was atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. He also hosted former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and civil rights leader Al Sharpton.
The conversation was not always friendly. Mr. Donahue would probe his guests with hard questions; in all reality, the show sounded more like a courtroom than a talk show. But Mr. Donahue asked the hard questions not to cast his guests in a negative light, but Mr. Donahue asked hard questions for his own understand and the understanding of his audience. And of course his show had the defining characteristic that made his show different; he would actually take questions from the audience or from phone calls.
Mr. Donahue’s show also introduced Americans to lifestyles that didn’t conform to the standards of the day. In 1991, his show hosted a wedding of two African-American men. His show highlighted transsexuals, the hip-hop culture, punk rock and other groups that were seen on being the outside of mainstream America.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Mr. Donahue’s show was that it lead to a whole genre of talk shows that exist today. His show became a direct influence on other talk shows of the day hosted by Oprah Winfrey and Sally Jessy Raphael.
By the time his show went off the air in 1997, other shows had taken over the genre. Ms. Winfrey’s show, which became the gold standard of the day, forayed more into self-improvement. Ms. Raphael featured more personal stories of pregnant teens and families in crisis.
Other shows took the issues based format that Mr. Donahue had put forward and put their own spin on them. Morton Downey Jr. had no problem with controversial guests and often blew cigarette smoke and openly mocked those guests.
But through it all, “The Phil Donahue Show” remained unique and the show that started the modern talk television genre. And in all honesty, I think made our society better.
Looking at old episodes of the show, the conversations on racism, the economy, the government, and religion still ring as true today in 2015 as they did when they first aired thirty and forty years ago. And Mr. Donahue’s demeanor was never to humiliate his guests, but to give those guests a fair and open forum to share their ideas and beliefs and to interact with an audience of diverse Americans.
The talk shows we see on television today really do nothing of the sort. Most of the talk shows we see on television today deal with family crises, paternity issues or exposing ridiculous lifestyles. I’m sorry but there is no way that “Dr. Phil,” “The Maury Povich Show,” or “The Bill Cunningham Show” can hold a candle to the work that Phil Donahue did in the decades preceding them; from 1978 to 1986, Mr. Donahue was awarded six Emmy awards for his work on this show.
Regardless of how we might think of Mr. Donahue and his politics and his show, he can be described as an American icon, and to think all of that started on a small television station way back in 1967 in Dayton, Ohio.
William (Bill) Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at [email protected]