Sunday, November 23, 2014

Television Talk Shows in the Internet Age

I was waiting for my lunch order in a restaurant a week ago, a little mom and pop place that had a flatscreen in the back corner. It was playing Maury Povich's talk show, which I hadn't seen in a long, long time. I hadn't seen any of the syndicated talk shows in ages, having had no reason to watch daytime television since the internet gave me a more preferable option with which to kill brain cells. But I didn't have a laptop or phone with me, and the batteries were dead in my MP3 player, so I spent about twenty minutes watching "Maury" and marveling at how the show had changed since I last saw it.

I watched the daytime talk shows on occasion when I was a teenager in the '90s and stuck at home for one reason or another. They were mostly variations on the same formula, with Jerry Springer's show on the trashiest end of the spectrum, and "Oprah" on the classiest. All of them picked a topic of the day, brought out a few rounds of guests to be interviewed, and fed on the energy of a live audience. "Oprah" might build shows around specific celebrities or products, but it always fell back on sensationalized human interest topics. "Maury" definitely leaned toward the "Springer" model, reliant on the freaks over the glamor. Paternity tests, alternative lifestyles, dysfunctional families, and interventions were all regularly trotted out on stage for our amusement.

I don't remember what the topic of the day was on the episode of "Maury" that I glimpsed last week, though there was a caption at the bottom of the screen indicating what it was. That wasn't the content that was on the screen. Instead, I found that I was watching a significant portion of "Maury" that had been set aside for viral videos. Apparently this is a regular segment, with its own presenter to provide commentary and context for the clips: footage of a robbery, a home video of a woman backing over a disabled man's scooter, and so forth. I recognized one of them from a post that had appeared on Reddit a month earlier. I'd noticed a couple of viral video programs like this had popped up on television in recent years, mostly time-fillers that local stations would run to patch gaps in their schedules. But what were these videos doing on "Maury"?

I kept watching. It was near the end of the hour, and the show was wrapping up with various announcements and messages. They were looking for participants for future shows on such-and-such topic. Tickets for future tapings could be obtained at such-and-such phone number. And then there was a push for viewers to connect with the "Maury" show online through Twitter and Facebook. As I watched the social media icons flash prominently on the screen, one after another, it clicked. Viral videos weren't just a cheap and easy way for the show to obtain content. "Maury" was showing them because that's what the target audience for these talk shows have been watching instead of "Maury." If you want to find a freak show, after all, the internet has an endless supply, and presented in a far more accessible way than the clunky daytime talk show format, interspersed with inane commercials.

The mainstream culture has inevitably shifted away from television and toward the internet. Twitter followers and Youtube views have become the new metrics of success, and it's rare that you can find anything on television that you can't find online within a few hours. The bigger talk shows and interview shows have responded by becoming part of the internet culture. Kimmel and Fallon create content intended to go viral on the internet. The hosts of "Good Morning America" and "Today" discuss whatever's trending on Twitter. However, the modus operandi of Maury Povich is to shovel schlock, and when his brand of schlock isn't selling any more, the only thing he can do is regurgitate the stuff that is getting attention - "shocking" acts "caught on camera" that most of us with any internet savvy have already seen circulating online.

I suspect the only ones left to watch "Maury" are the dwindling number of viewers who aren't savvy or aren't connected. Or have been stuck waiting for an order of fish tacos for a little too long. I don't think I'll be going back to that restaurant. And I doubt I'll be seeing Maury again for a long time.

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