As I work for the Library of Congress, the recent government shutdown brought with it several days of imposed “vacation”. Along with a five-pound weight gain, the furlough (as we now like to call it) also allotted me time to reacquaint myself with daytime television.
By and large, it was not a pleasant experience.
I found myself, in time, gaining respect and even affection for The Doctors and even Wendy Williams, the majority of daytime programming fodder is nothing to be thrilled with. All in all, daytime TV is a loud, crass, argumentative and deeply desperate collection of programs.
Though game shows and a few soap operas still linger, almost all daytime TV has been turned over to talk. Today’s talk shows seem to all fall comfortably into two categories: 1. The confrontational (like Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil, Maury Povich) where “friends” or relatives fight and scream at each other over matters large and trivial and fisticuffs are always just teasingly moments away; and 2. The forced and artificial “party”-type programs, where preening hosts work up a daily flop sweat trying to force you to have a good time even if it’s only 10AM (talking to you Ellen, Bethenny, and Queen Latifah).
A steady diet of daytime talk also reveals something else, in regard to the all of daytime’s confrontational shows. Increasingly, it’s all about the test. Paternity tests, DNA tests (for other types of familial relations), and lie detector tests.
Maury Povich, one of daytime’s long-running talk shows (debuted in 1991) has all but abandoned any other type of content in favor of the test and its subsequent big reveal moments. Gone are the drag queens, surprise family reunions and anything else remotely “feel good”, Nowadays, Maury is all about DNA and who is and isn’t the father. Of late as well, Maury has put polygraphs to good use as lovers confront each other with cheating allegations and the like and the lie detector determines the truth. (Granted, use of lie detectors are not admissible in a court of law, but—screw it!—it’s good enough for TV!)
Maury has had such success with this content (and its resulting emotional fall out) that he has inspired imitators. Along with fellow talkers Steve Wilkos, Trisha Goddard and Bill Cunningham, employing the same sort of DNA determination frequently on their shows, daytime TV now offers the self-explanatory Paternity Court, and a show that cuts right to the chase by calling itself The Test.
The Test debuted this fall and is hosted by sometime stand-up comic Kirk Fox. Fox plays it mostly straight most days as he subjects his guests to any number of procedures to determine paternity or truthfulness. (But notice, never intelligence.)
In and of itself, these daily “Who’s the Daddy?” shenanigans are pretty repellent. But what makes them worse is how greatly disproportional the racial make-up of these show’s guests/subjects seem to be. Though I have not yet conducted a content analysis, I would say at least half (if not more) of Maury’s daily participants are African-American.
The lingering image and implication of this is sort of distortion is a disturbing one. It allows Maury (and also the likes of the white Wilkos or Fox) to be seen in the role of mitigator, authority figure and even overlord, working to sort out the messy lives of those black people.
Ironically, just as this phenomenon is taking place, as Entertainment Weekly recently pointed out, daytime TV is actually one of the most racially mixed on the air. There are African-American members at each of the roundtables on The Talk, The View, and The Chew. Live with Kelly and Michael, the aforementioned Trisha Goddard Show, Wendy Williams and Queen Latifah are all built around the talents of people who also happen to be black. African-Americans also make up about half of the judges on TV’s current spate of current courtroom shows (i.e., Divorce Court, America’s Court with Judge Ross).
Still, it’s hard to get over how non-celebrity African-Americans are being depicted on daytime TV via Maury and its imitators with their daily parade of dysfunctional interpersonal relationships. Sadly, I’m not sure who is to blame.
African-Americans have as much right, if you will, to have messed up personal lives as whites or anyone else. Excluding them from these shows is as racist as the images these shows seem to be perpetuating.
And issues of paternity are important—not only for the emotional well-being of all involved, but also in terms of custody and child support issues. DNA testing can be costly and it seems to be outside of the financial reach of many of the people (black, white, other). Sadly, Maury (or its ilk) might be the only option for many facing this sort of quandary; it’s the last place they have to turn to even if their appearance comes with a heavy dose of public exposure and humiliation.
Meanwhile, I’m sure the producers of Maury, et.al., view themselves as providing some sort of service to its guests, even if it can’t help but, ultimately, be exploitative via its worldwide broadcasting and demeaning studio audience interaction. Lest we forget, like anyone who subjects themselves to the potential quagmire of TV—talk TV especially—no one is forcing anyone to go on these shows, let lone subject themselves to a blood test or polygraph exam.
Furthermore, Maury, etc., is a talk show, not a social welfare agency. Judging by current Nielsens, Maury is doing just fine; he’s currently daytime’s top rated talk show. His success, as we’ve seen, has even been imitated and replicated. For better or worse, he is the father of this invention.
Povich’s success also means that he won’t be slowing down or shutting off the test tubes or the polygraph anytime soon.
Perhaps, regardless of race, the most tragic element of these daytime reveals is not only that we watch them, but that so many of these tests need to be carried out in the first place.