Over the years, about 110 people have had their own daytime talk shows in the United States, but most did not last long enough to become household names. Before Sally Jessy Raphael, Geraldo Rivera, Montel Williams and Ricki Lake—even before Oprah—there was Phil Donahue. "I have said this many times before," Oprah says. "If it weren't for Phil Donahue, there would never have been an Oprah Show."
Watch Phil's tribute to Oprah.
From its very first episode in 1969, broadcast from a station in Dayton, Ohio, The Phil Donahue Show was different from anything else on TV. "We were competing with Monty Hall [on Let's Make a Deal] who's giving $5,000 to a woman dressed like a chicken salad sandwich," Phil says. "We knew that in order to get attention, we had to be controversial."
From his home base in the Midwest, Phil had no access to celebrities or power brokers, but he turned this liability into an opportunity. His first guest was outspoken atheism activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair. When Madalyn started mocking the tenets of Christianity, the phones started ringing. "I mean, sponsors canceled. We were on the air like 10 minutes and people were scrambling," Phil says. "But everybody knew there was a talk show in Dayton, Ohio, at 10:30 in the morning."
Watch Sally Jessy, Geraldo, Ricki and Montel share how they started out as talk show hosts.
In 1996, after 20 daytime Emmys and 26 seasons in syndication, the king of daytime talk ended his reign.