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How Phil Donahue Invented Daytime Talk Show TV

Entertainment | December 21, 2020

Phil Donahue on the air in 1982. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

In 1967, The Phil Donahue Show premiered on a local Dayton, Ohio, television channel and for the next 20 plus years the talk show introduced audiences to a ton of cultural issues, both controversial and heartwarming, from mild to wild. Donahue himself wasn't exactly a mystery, but the series was never about him, audiences never got to know the enigma that was Phil, the guy from the Buckeye State.

Daytime talk shows were all the rage in the '80s and '90s, but Donahue showed them all how do it. Oprah, Ricki Lake, Sally Jessy Raphael, Jenny Jones, even Maury Povich and Jerry Springer learned how to do their thing thanks to Donahue. He not only set the template for the shows that followed, but he changed the television landscape forever.

Donahue didn't know he wanted to be on TV

source: NBC Universal

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935, Phil Donahue had a fairly normal upbringing. His father sold furniture and his mother was a department store shoe clerk - he never had a plan to be a broadcaster. While attending the University of Notre Dame he studied Business Administration, but his real education began in 1957.

That year, he took a job as a production assistant at the local KYW radio and television station. He got coffee, cleaned up, and spent his time working as a gopher until one day when the station's regular announcer failed to arrive. Donahue was given his first taste of working the mic. He moved on from KYW to work in New Mexico, Michigan, and WHIO-TV in Ohio where he interviewed heavy hitters like Jimmy Hoffa and Malcolm X.

The 'Phil Donahue Show' Got Its Start In Ohio

source: Dayton Arena Project

After living the vagabond radio and TV host life after his graduation, Donahue finally started The Phil Donahue Show on WLWD, an early version of his national show that ran from 1967 to 1970. During his early years on the show he interviewed anyone he could, from cultural firebrands to regular people. Later, Donahue reminisced about how the show was constantly on the verge of falling apart. He told Oprah:

We started locally in Dayton with two cameras and no stars—we could only afford to fly in two guests a week. We had no couches, no announcers, no band and folding chairs, no jokes. I wasn't saying, 'Come on down!' We knew we were visually dull, so we had to go to issues—that's what made us alive.

This early version of the show wasn't just a dress rehearsal for the national series, it was a place for Donahue to talk about important issues like the civil rights movement and the burgeoning second wave feminist movement. As cutting edge as this was, Donahue doesn't consider himself a hero of the first amendment. He explained:

I'd like you to think I'm a visionary, but no. The people around me who were making decisions about who we had on the show were women. It was a woman's idea to do a show about male strippers. Before that show, I thought, 'Where are we gonna put their microphones?' I was honestly afraid, as you might expect most men would be.

Donahue Does National Syndication

source: NBC Universal

When The Phil Donahue Show went national in 1970, he did't stop getting controversial - he cranked up the attitude. During his stint on the national stage Donahue covered increasingly hot topics, from the debate surrounding abortion to whether or not Procter & Gamble was linked to the Church of Satan (seriously).

It's not like Donahue didn't know that he was getting under people's skin. Aside from wanting to grab great ratings, Donahue was fascinated with telling stories that touched nerves across America regardless of whether it hurt someone's feelings or not. He said:

If you look up outrage in the dictionary, there's a picture of me. We once even filmed an abortion—a side shot of a woman in stirrups, the physician dilating the cervix, everything. You heard the machine. You saw the birth matter in a jar. We filmed it. Then we called the Archdiocese of Chicago, the pro-life people, and the pro-choice people, sat them in a room, and played the tape before going anywhere near the air with it. When I walked into the room after they'd seen it, half the people were crying. The major grievance of the pro-life and Catholic Church folks was that the tape made abortion look easy. I said, 'Well, that's the procedure—15 minutes.' Their fear was that if we aired this, everybody would run out and get abortions.

Without Donahue Daytime TV As We Know It Wouldn't Exist

source: NBC Universal

As the show became a national phenomenon, Donahue created a template for every talk show that followed. He introduced a topic, often one that was controversial, before bringing up a panel of guests, some of whom were experts and some of whom who were regular people, and then he took questions and comments from the audience as chaos ensued. His shows were never the violent free-for-alls that the Jerry Springer Show became, but it's easy to see the link between the shows.

In 1985, Donahue moved his show to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York so he could be closer to his wife Marlo Thomas, and that's when he started going international. It was then, at the height of the Cold War that Donahue co-hosted a series of conversations with Soviet journalist Vladimir Posner and allowed audiences from both countries to ask each other questions in order to create more understanding between the two nations. Initially known as the U.S. - Soviet Space Bridge, the hosts settled on the title Posner/Donhaue for their shot lived CNBC series.

Donahue Signs Off

source: NBC Universal

On September 13, 1996, Donahue's reign on syndicated daytime TV came to an end. The show had been on a downward trajectory for several years, with Donahue publicly critical of the hosts who were getting more and more outrageous with the formula he'd invented. Donahue also became increasingly outspoken against the first Gulf War. At he same time that the host was making enemies with the U.S. military, he lost his studio at Rockefeller Center and had to move to a new studio in Manhattan. Stations were dropping the show with reckless abandon, and changing his time slot without notice.

Donahue saw the writing on the wall and ended his series after 29 years. Even though the series ended with a whimper rather than a bang, it's still one of the biggest day time talk shows of the '70s and '80s, both groundbreaking and influential. After hosting his long running series Donahue continued to pop on shows on MSNBC, but he says that he prefers to spend most of his time sailing. He told Oprah:

I went from being the leader of my talk show to being the leader of my boat. Sailing totally focuses my mind... Wherever I go in the boat, people are waving at me and I'm in charge. It's important to know how anxious I was to get off the show. I never wanted to be too highbrow for our sponsors—my job was to draw a crowd, and you can't do that playing organ music.

Tags: Daytime TV | Phil Donahue | Talk Shows

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.