New young talk-show hosts air their own failings

September 03, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

They have histories of drug problems, eating disorders, childhood stardom and, in at least one case, a criminal conviction.

They value confession, relationships, guests with great pecs, and they promise, always, to a man or woman, to empower their fans.

They are Carnie Wilson, Tempestt Bledsoe, Gabrielle Carteris, Danny Bonaduce and Mark Walberg -- a new generation of daytime talk-show hosts debuting in syndication this month. And their arrival looks as though it might be the beginning of the end for some of their elders.

With the exception of "The George & Alana Show" -- featuring George Hamilton and ex-wife, Alana Stewart -- this fall's crop of talk shows features hosts in their 20s or early 30s. As these newcomers take up residence on the television talk landscape, some longtime favorites, like Phil Donahue, are being put out to pasture in fringe viewing periods or canceled outright.

As of tomorrow, for the first time in almost two decades, "Donahue" won't be seen in New York City, the nation's top television market. In smaller markets like Baltimore (23rd), "Donahue" has been shunted off to 3 a.m. by WBAL-TV.

"I can't remember a time of such clearly defined change," says Emerson Coleman, the director of broadcast operations at WBAL-TV. "I guess it is defined in a way by what happened to Donahue in New York vs. the arrival of all these new young hosts. Donahue's had a long run, and we'll have to wait and see which, if any, of the new hosts lasts even a year. But it is definitely a time of change."

The Lake effect

Any explanation for the change must start with Ricki Lake and her phenomenal success. In the last two years, Lake has gone from virtually nowhere to become the second most successful talk-show host on daytime television.

The most successful is still Oprah Winfrey, but "Oprah" has declined as "Ricki" has risen. "Ricki" is now seen in more cities than "Oprah." More important to advertisers, "Ricki" is the show most watched by young women.

"I think for a long time the production companies really ignored that demographic," says J. Darlene Hayes, executive producer of "Gabrielle." "They didn't think it was a daytime audience. What Ricki did when she came on and geared her show to a young demographic is tap into a whole new audience."

Even though Carteris is 34, she is expected to reach that same audience of women, in their teens and 20s, because of her young role on Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210."

"I think there's a natural following. I come from '90210,' and there's an awareness of who I am," Carteris says.

Having an established media persona, the way Carteris does, is part of the package for most of the newcomers. Bonaduce is known as Danny of "The Partridge Family," in addition to his scrapes with the law in more recent years. Bledsoe played "Vanessa Huxtable" on "The Cosby Show." Carnie Wilson is the daughter of Beach Boys' Brian Wilson and a former member of the singing group Wilson Phillips.

The only one without an established image is Walberg -- not to be confused with Marky Mark Wahlberg, who gained fame as part of the drop-your-pants school of rap musicians.

For her part, Lake says there's more to her success than youth appeal or an image created through her work in John Waters' feature films and a recurring role on the "China Beach" television series.

"One thing that I have going for me is I'm true to myself," the 26-year-old Lake said in a recent interview with Broadcasting & Cable magazine. "I think there's no bull about me. I'm not a 30-year-old trying to be 20. They wanted a young woman in her 20s, and that's exactly what they got -- who struggled through a weight problem, who had financial problems, who had been through a lot for my 24 years when they found me. The viewer can see through someone who pretends to be someone they're not."

Woe is me

What daytime talk-show viewers can and cannot see through is another issue. What's important here is that several of the new young hosts are highlighting their flaws and troubled pasts, a la Ricki.

Bonaduce's producer, Disney's Buena Vista Television, plans to make his run-ins with the law part of his promotional campaign.

And the first thing critics learned about Walberg was that his wife was an alcohol and drug abuser. How? Walberg showed a tape at the summer press tour that featured him and her talking about substance abuse.

Asked why he felt the need to get so personal, the 32-year-old Walberg sounded like Lake: "You can go out and pretend to be something you're not, but America's smart enough to see right through it. . . . The best thing about my relationship with my wife is that when we got together we were broke, right? So, we survived that, plus the alcoholism, plus my own stuff and whatever we have to go through as young couples in this relationship."

Relationship is a word all the young hosts emphasize, along with an insistence that they are going to "take the high road," to quote Bonaduce.

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