How a madman became a TV star

March 27, 1994|By Michael Ollove and David Zurawik | Michael Ollove and David Zurawik,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writer Ed Heard contributed to this article.

The Monday and Tuesday episodes of "The Montel Williams Show" past week were shocking, lurid and riveting.

In the world of daytime talk television, that means they were a smash.

Baltimore resident Jerome Stanfield told a national audience that he, a drug addict and carrier of the HIV infection, had raped more than 90 prostitutes in his hometown over the last three years. Teary-eyed and soft-spoken, he pleaded with Mr. Williams to help him end his "misery."

Even by the exhibitionist standards of daytime talk, this was powerful stuff, and the Williams people knew it. Before airing the programs, they took steps to maximize their impact.

They invited reporters from TV stations nationwide to attend the taping in New York March 16. They arranged for Mr. Williams to be interviewed. And they sent breathless faxes to TV critics trumpeting the shows in which "the self-professed serial rapist confesses for the first time his heinous crime" and by show's end "voluntarily put himself in the hands of police department officials."

Nothing was going to stand in the way of this triumph for Montel Williams. And nothing did, including Mr. Stanfield's recanting of his confession moments after the taping or the Baltimore Police Department's statement that it could not substantiate his story.

In fact, though Mr. Stanfield was taken into custody by the New York police after the taping, he was quickly released, his claims dismissed as a hoax. But in the don't-look-back world of daytime television, none of these facts proved to be obstacles. The shows aired without any corroboration -- or any regrets.

"If I had to do it again, I'd do it exactly the same way," supervising producer Mary Duffy said.

The episode is symptomatic not only of the cutthroat fight for survival in daytime television, but also of the blurring of the boundaries between rigorous news-gathering and the slap-- rush slake the public appetite for the salacious.

For viewers, there are no distinctions made about the information served up to them, no gauges offered to measure the relative credibility of different programs. At a time when even network news programs have been guilty of distortions and manufacturing evidence, who is to know which facts can be trusted and what standards are being observed? There are no warning labels for information shows (Caution: The following program contains information that we never substantiated).

In "Confessions of a Serial Rapist," Montel Williams' two-part interview with Mr. Stanfield, the show applied a peculiar logic. Instead of taking the position that it would broadcast Mr. Stanfield's sensational revelation only if it could confirm his claims -- a conventional journalistic standard -- the Williams producers decided to air his claims unless they were disproved.

"We have no information at this time that leads us to believe that he is not telling the truth," Mr. Williams said in introducing the shows. "We feel it is our duty and our responsibility to broadcast this program out of concern for public safety."

An appreciation of how Jerome Stanfield found his way onto a nationally syndicated TV show with 6 million viewers starts with an understanding of the world of daytime TV talk and its increasingly prominent role in American culture.

It's the world of Oprah, Geraldo and Sally Jessy Raphael, who embraced a format originated by Phil Donahue in 1968 that is in the midst of dramatic change. In recent years, there has been an explosion of new talk shows, supplanting game shows and soap operas. There are 16 daytime talk shows on the air, with at least 13 more in development.

"They are the future of TV -- low cost and high revenue," says Dr. Douglas Gomery, a media economist at the University of Maryland College Park.

The stakes are high

Daytime talk brings in $500 million a year in advertising revenue, according to industry estimates. But the best indication of the kind of money at stake is suggested by the contract Oprah Winfrey signed last week for $60 million a year. Diane Sawyer, perhaps the brightest star in nighttime news, makes $7 million a year under the terms of her new ABC contract.

But with all the new shows competing, the gold is harder to reach.

"I don't think there is any more room for growth in the number of shows on the air," says Barry Thurston, president of Columbia Pictures Television Distribution.

Montel Williams is locked in a fierce fight, trying to find a niche that will enable him to hold on.

In terms of ratings, his 3-year-old show, which is carried in 120 cities, is in the middle of the pack. It finishes seventh among daytime talk shows, according to A.C. Nielsen. That puts it ahead of such shows as "Jerry Springer" but well behind "Geraldo," "Donahue" and "Oprah."

Mr. Williams, a Baltimore native, is strongest with black viewers. In Baltimore, for example, which has the highest percentage of black viewers of any major TV market, his ratings are about three times higher than his national performance.

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