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American Journalism Review
On TV, Talk is Cheap – And Very Profitable  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ECONOMICS OF TELEVISION    
From AJR,   July/August 1995

On TV, Talk is Cheap – And Very Profitable   

The low price tag is the key to the runaway seccess of talk shows.

By Douglas Gomery
Douglas Gomery is the author of nine books on the economics and history of the media     


It seems hard to turn on the television or the radio and not find somebody talking. Virginia Governor George Allen "debates" welfare mothers on Donahue. Sen. Arlen Specter "announces" his ambition to become president on "Larry King Live." Jenny Jones reunites long-separated sweethearts.

It's often said that the rise of talk on TV and radio simply means that it is popular. But that's just part of the story. Talk is so prevalent because it is so cheap. Even though many talk shows regularly produce minuscule ratings, many still make profits. This applies to respectable interview shows and schlock schmoozers alike.

Talk TV rarely wins a valued time slot. The exception is "Nightline." While David Letterman may be hailed as the king of late night television, Ted Koppel shares the throne. "Nightline" and Letterman regularly run neck-and-neck in the ratings.

Yet for all of the success of "Nightline," talk on TV is more routinely found in marginal time slots or on cable channels that regularly measure their national ratings in thousands of households, not millions. "America's Talking" offers a complete talk TV network on cable, but it is among cable's smallest. Jenny Jones gathers headlines with her humiliation of the day but, like Montel Williams, Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer, is never seen in prime time.

We ought to remember that 15 years ago "Nightline" began not as a noble experiment, but as A

Most TV talk shows are syndicated – sold market by market – rather than broadcast by the major networks. Jay Leno, Letterman and "Nightline" are the most notable exceptions.

Talk TV has created its own stars. A dozen years ago Oprah Winfrey was reading the news in Baltimore. Today she is a multimillionaire.

But for every Oprah who makes it big, dozens of aspirants crash and burn. We quickly forget the failures of Vicki Lawrence, Joan Rivers, Les Brown and Bertice Berry. No one seems confident to predict more than brief tenures for upcoming talkmeisters Carnie Wilson, daughter of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, Gabrielle Carteris of "Beverly Hills, 90210" and onetime Cosby kid Tempestt Bledsoe.

But if TV talk is cheap, talk radio truly represents programming on a shoestring. Unemployed politicians Gary Hart, Oliver North, Jerry Brown, Ed Koch and L. Douglas Wilder plead, often scream, and regularly issue opinions about the issue du jour, keeping their names before the public while filling radio's off-hours between morning and afternoon drive time.

If the rise of cable television networks and the growth of independent TV stations during the 1980s paved the way for the tube's talk explosion, the unfilled air time on the AM band has propelled the expansion of talk radio. It is no coincidence that the number of talk radio stations has quadrupled over the past decade as AM stations have lost more and more of their market share to FM's superior music delivery. Talk is one sound that AM radio carries well.

The prominence of such celebrity talkers as Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern and G. Gordon Liddy might suggest that talk radio has become a new national soapbox. But in fact most radio talk shows are local phenomena. The Gary Harts and Doug Wilders are rarely heard much beyond their home states. When Oliver North's talk radio show debuted in March, he was on the air in just two cities.

For two generations, radio has worked best as a local medium. So while they may be famous in their own region, few elsewhere have ever listened to Seattle's Mike Siegel, Atlanta's Neal Boortz or the Twin Cities' Barbara Carlson.

And now the ultimate talk show: the O.J. Simpson trial.

It's common to compare the trial to soap opera, but on many days it is hardly the stuff of compelling narrative. Rather, the "trial of the century" is pure talk at its low cost best.

No doubt the numbers are there. From venues on CNN and Court TV, the Simpson trial increased cable TV's overall ratings some 40 percent during the first quarter of 1995. CNN's ratings plummet when Judge Lance Ito halts the proceedings for the day.

But to focus only on the unexpectedly high ratings is to miss the major point. The cost of the trial is being borne by citizens of Los Angeles – the ultimate public subsidy for American broadcasting. l

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