Daytime TV's Vulture Culture
American TV audiences come in all shapes and sizes. Daytime TV – across the many channels available – presents a host of options; reruns of westerns from the 60s; game shows, which never seem to get old. And then there are the various talk show formats and judge shows.
This installment of Advanced TV Herstory looks at daytime shows from the 90s and 2000s, analyzed and cataloged by media studies experts Kathalene Razzano, Loubna Skalli and Christine Quail.
In their book, entitled Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows, look at “a culture that has its own logic, topicality, values, market and audiences.”
I had the chance to interview Skalli and Razzano at the 2016 Cultural Studies Association conference in Philadelphia this summer.
Much of their study and continued interest is on the portrayal of women in the judge shows, the rowdy-audience talk shows like Maury Povich and Jenny Jones, the self-help side of Oprah Winfrey’s show and its spinoffs… there was a lot of change in daytime TV during the 90s and 2000s!
You don’t have to be old as dirt to remember daytime talk shows that were variety shows - interviews with up and coming musicians or comedians, a cooking demonstration. Or Dinah Shore hosting a reunion of Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance in what was the last televised appearance of this famous TV duo.
Daytime talk got more serious when Phil Donahue hit the airwaves in 1967. For 28 years, Donahue’s one hour format delivered viewers in-depth conversations with experts, panels and live audience shows that traveled the country. It was on Donahue’s show that acclaimed actress Patty “Anna” Duke spoke at length about her bipolar diagnosis. A podcast installment examined Duke’s career, including this important historic interview – listen to Patty Duke’s Place in TV Herstory if you get a chance.
But in the 1990s and 2000s, the need for networks to air shows that weren’t infomercials was great. Soap operas were on the wane. Game shows were out of favor. But something called The People’s Court had done well in the late 70s in syndication. Enter Judge Judy.
Phil Donohue’s format took off successfully in the form of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which ran from 1986 to 2011. Hour long segments. Good conversation.
The three scholars published Vulture Culture in 2005, three years before the recession started. Their work preserves for us the big shift in daytime programming that produced “spectacles” and preyed upon vulnerability, class and the feeling of disenfranchisement to deliver whatever they person sought: answers, advice, the right diet, intervention.
This was a new level of sharing, manufactured by producers to raise the bar on provocative. On that which we consider “controversial.” As the authors write,
“Vulture culture is the process by which the media scavenge the personal narratives and popular discourses of everyday knowledge and common sense and re-present them back to us as spectacle, entertainment and information.”
More often than not… a woman was at the center of the spectacle…
By way of introduction, you should know that Dr. Kathalene Razzano is an Adjunct Professor of Global Affairs at George Mason University. She specializes in cultural studies, feminist social theory, political economy, critical legal studies, and media studies.
Loubna Skalli Hanna is an international scholar and consultant. Her research examines issues at the intersection of development, politics, gender, youth, culture and communication, with regional expertise is in the Middle East and North Africa.
Finally, Christine Quail, who contributed to the book but whose voice you won’t hear in this interview, is an assistant professor in Communication Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
One day, these three were talking about daytime TV…
Theme & form
These three author-scholars approached this social phenomena used a rigorous and methodical approach to arriving at some pretty startling conclusions about how these shows preyed on vulnerable people, particularly women.
“Why do people watch these shows?” I asked. “Is there any societal good that comes from them? What does it teach our young people – our young women and what stereotypes does it reinforce?”
Hearing them speak now about research they conducted a dozen years ago and analysis they drafted carefully – it helps us understand a lot about TV today and how the depiction of women has changed.
Focus on women
So let’s do a quick run down of the lists and categories they looked at. Our conversation wasn’t exhaustive. Professors Skalli and Razzano honed in on the notion of empowerment – how do these shows empower the women who appear on them and perhaps, indirectly, the women in the audience and viewing at home.
They spoke of daytime TV’s power to broach subjects in an informative way that definitely has led to a broader understanding of issues that were long considered taboo.
And finally, they spoke of the life lessons that get dealt on judge shows in particular. Common sense no longer handed down in the home or through lessons taught in the classroom now gets delivered as part of the public spectacle.
You remember the shows: Maury Povich, Jenny Jones, Sally Jesse Raphael, Ricki Lake, Morton Downey and Montel Williams. They were masterful with the microphone and well known for their whipped up audiences.
Without wanting to chase down a philosophical rabbit hole, which came first, the flock of teens wanting to get pregnant before their 16th birthday or the TV show that went to great lengths to find and audition them for 15 minutes of fame?
Don’t answer that. But think about it.
Then there were other shows, mainly with women at the helm - Oprah, Ellen, Wendy Williams and so many others. They didn’t necessarily stoop to the sensational as much as the first list did – though you can hear in your head the announcer often putting out the call of “If you or someone you know…whatever… contact our show at – and then a phone number.”
There are the doctor shows – Doctor Oz, Doctor Phil and The Doctors come to mind. As shows these weren’t included in Vulture Culture, but the professors’ capably researched the role of “the expert” in each show’s format.
Then there are the judge shows, with the best known, thematically, being Divorce Court, The People’s Court and Paternity Court.
Now remember, the research the professors conducted spanned the early 90s into the early 2000s.
As Oprah’s show came to a close just a few years ago, it really was celebrated for taking on all sorts of issues, bringing authors and scholars into the everyday conversation and showing us parts of the world which have problems far more complex than ours. Rather than getting whipped up to denigrate or embarrass a person less fortunate, Oprah often left her studio and viewing audiences with the reminder of just how blessed we were.
There are volumes written on Oprah, her style and her impact. The hallmark of a great interviewer is the ability to create an environment of trust with the person being interviewed. Time and again, her studio audience created a space of respect and calm as persons regular and famous bared their souls or shared their stories.
Like child-actress Mackenzie Phillips, who appeared on Oprah in 2009 promoting her book and sharing her revelations around incest.
This wasn’t spectacle in the way that other daytime series (usually in syndication, not on a regular broadcast schedule like Oprah followed). We are very much in need of another Oprah, another Phil Donahue – someone with integrity, at least some journalistic skill and a capacity to probe a topic in a way that’s respectful, yet revealing.
In the meantime, we have court shows, which sometimes hand down common sense advice from an actual sworn judge. Professor Razzano spoke of her research across the many shows that featured paternity as a the day’s topic. By the mid-90s, technology had put the paternity test in reach of the general public, thereby creating a new way to air laundry and possibly find resolution.
So were these shows really empowering? I asked the professors…
Now every once in a while, channel surfing brings me to an episode of Judge Judy, a woman judge who served the people of the State of New York for a few decades. As Judge Judy, she’s stepped away from the decorum and tradition of the family court and assumed a role of the voice of common sense and the occasional lecture.
There’s value there. I have to believe that Judge Judy’s people are sharp enough to set up a docket of cases where she can lambast the defendants and plaintiffs who are appearing before her in lieu of Small Claims Court.
Her points are as valid as you’d find from anyone’s mother, uncle or therapist, alluding to trusty, trustworthiness, accountability, responsibility, dignity, self-respect, self-esteem and the Golden Rule.
Stupidity and laziness know no gender preference in Judge Judy’s courtroom. Since the book Vulture Culture was written, there have been other court shows too, some of which feature male judges. Each brings a different style and personality to the bench. Judge Judy with her New York accent is usually direct, often cites statistics and will engage the plaintiff or defendant in her own line of interro – er questioning.
Was it Judge Judy and her dramatic pronouncements and lectures who used her show to transcend the decorum of the courtroom for the bully pulpit? Most likely, since before her, you had The People’s Court. While People’s Court had a string of mostly male judges ruling from the bench, I cannot recall them being quite as aggressive as Judge Judy. She paved the way for the lecture and public humiliation that comes with forsaking your day in small claims court for a day in her court.
In doing so, did she help or hurt the average American’s view of the justice system? How hard is it for some viewers to differentiate that this is staged and a far cry from real – like professional wrestling – complete with security officers posing as real bailiffs.
One woman judge who’s assumed a similar bully pulpit from her bench is Divorce Court’s Judge Lynn Toler. There are a host of interviews with her available on YouTube in which Judge
Judge Lynn Toler
Toler speaks about her role in each situation the comes before her. Often, Divorce Court couples act out in a “spectacle” or carnival-like way, before a revved up audience. Are these the real facts? Where is their self-respect? The professors maintain that the empowerment that comes from the moment of fame, the chance to bring an issue to Divorce Court is indeed worth the loss of privacy.
And within that spectacle, Judge Toler takes a deep breath and can deliver a monologue worthy of Julia Sugarbaker from Designing Women.
The studio and viewing audience – does this very eloquent speech delivered from an educated, well-read judge make them reflect on accountability and trust and the value of work and putting others over self?
Within the confines of a court room where the judge had leeway to express opinion and reflection, one might hope that family and interested parties of the divorcing couple would take heed. Be humbled.
This podcast segment barely does justice to the book written by my two guests. It’s a deep, revealing look at how TV was a dozen years ago. Very valid work. And in American daytime TV, the spectacle still continues. Rude, disrespectful and violent behavior is accepted in some studio shows. Experts clash with experts and resort to their polarized positions at the expense of a viewing public in sore need of compromisers, builders and nurterers.
And all too often, women’s bodies, spirits and minds are the focus of these controversies. From eating disorders to tattoos, rebelling against controlling parents or mustering the courage to confront an abuser on TV.
Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows is a must read for students interested in media and gender studies. The professors create a time capsule of an important turning point in how women, minorities, LGBT and other populations were given their 15 minutes of fame, in exchange for their stories. How that story was told and made into spectacle varied.
The shows have evolved and so have we, but the book documents with great clarity the corrosive effects, framed within the sociological and economic context of popular media’s impact. Women and their imperfections – that mindset that permeates even today – are alive and well in these Vulture Culture shows.
I’d like to thank Professors Kathalene Razzano and Loubna Skalli for their time and good work. Find their book online. It was published in 2005 by Peter Lang Publishing. Audio clips from shows and teasers can be found on YouTube.
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Finally, a note of thanks to audio expert and Northwestern University grad David Brown for his good work on this segment. Loyal listeners, I hope you’ll agree that this podcast has never sounded better!
Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.