Oprah Talks to Phil Donahue
Phil (continued): I used to do reunion shows—a woman's high school boyfriend would come out and the two would hug. It was fabulous voyeurism. About five years ago, I'm watching Jenny Jones—"One-Night Stand Reunions." First guest comes out, and she looks like Jennifer Connelly. She says, "We were in a bar having a drink and I noticed his eyes, and pretty soon, we're in the motel. It was the most passionate, intimate, exciting night I've had in my life." The audience goes, "Oooh!" By now, I'm canceling appointments to watch this, and Jenny Jones says, "Would you like to meet him?" The audience says, "Yeah!" I thought, "Me too." So of course I have to wait for the commercial, and when they introduce this guy, he's 6 foot 4, he's gorgeous—and he's black. The audience goes, "Whoooa!" And I thought, "Well, shit—we never thought of that!" We've come a long way from the guy who comes from the Rotary Club to meet Gertrude who he danced with in 1948.
Oprah: You started all of this!
Phil: If that's what you think, I'm proud. What I'm most proud of is that we involved the audience more than anybody else in the game. People who owned the airwaves got to actually use them in this wild thing called democracy. Hooray for us.
Oprah: But don't you think some of the talk shows have gone too far? Just the other day, I was flipping through the channels and saw that people were naked on Jerry Springer.
Phil: I've been very good about trying not to sound like the old guy who says, "In my day, we'd never do that." We were naughty, too.
Oprah: I've been naughty, but some of the shows have crossed over into a whole different territory.
Phil: They probably have. I don't think it's an overstatement to suggest that we have a culture in decay. The canary in the mine now is public education. We have way too many people either not finishing high school, or when they do...
Oprah: Knowing nothing.
Phil: Employers will tell you that we have high school graduates without fundamental skills. What's happening on television is a reflection of our culture. And instead of wringing our hands and breathing heavy and saying, "Ain't it awful?" I think we ought to try to do something. We're like an experiment being set up by a sociology class. If you want to know about America's culture in the last half of the 20th century, watch some of these programs.
Oprah: There's a level of vulgarity on TV now that didn't exist before.
Phil: I was never exposed to this material when I was an adolescent and started having "impure thoughts." I don't know how I'd handle the imagery that's available today.