'The Money Shot': decay of U.S. culture

July 21, 2002|By Victoria A. Brownworth | By Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

The Money Shot: Trash, Class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows, by Laura Grindstaff. University of Chicago Press. 318 pages. $20.

If class delineates America's social structure, to a lesser degree TV stratifies American culture. Where class and TV converge is on what the industry calls "daytime." Soap operas used to be the determinant; now, it's talk shows. Tune in and one risks exposure to and taint by what is commonly referred to as "trash" TV.

Class, "trash" and daytime talk are the subjects of ethnographer Laura Grindstaff's intriguing expose, The Money Shot: Trash, Class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows. Grindstaff worked as a production assistant on several daytime talk shows and kept assiduous notes on every aspect of her work, the manner in which the shows were produced and the way in which audience, guests and staff handled topics ranging from the vaguely informative to the outright raunchy.

The daytime talk genre (not to be confused with its variety-style, celebrity-driven cousin, the late-night talk show) reached its sleazy apex in the mid-1990s. On an episode of The Jenny Jones Show dedicated to secret crushes, Scott Amedure, a gay man, announced his crush on his straight friend, Jonathan Schmitz. Schmitz murdered Amedure several days later. At his trial, Schmitz alleged he was so embarrassed by the incident that he felt compelled to kill Amedure. He was convicted in 1996 and sentenced to life in prison. Warner Bros., the show's producer, was fined a huge sum.

The 'Jenny Jones Murder,' as the tabloids termed it, brought the wrath of everyone from politicians looking for an easy photo-op to religious groups to gay rights groups down on the entire daytime talk industry. However, as Grindstaff notes, the media and political heat toned things down for a time, but not indefinitely.

America had become addicted to daytime talk and the kind of edgy antics it produced. Some daytime talks held pretensions of social relevancy, like the 1960s originator of the genre, Phil Donahue, or former journalist-turned-talker, Geraldo Rivera and daytime diva, Oprah, but the shows that grabbed the ratings are Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones and others with a distinctly looser definition of social relevancy. Some viewers watch to see people like themselves; others watch to see people very "unlike" themselves. Either way, the audience is bountiful, the ratings plentiful and the sleaze abundant.

Grindstaff explicates the lure succinctly: "Ordinary people are the real stars and experts of the show." It's this ability to become expert (albeit in a somewhat pornographic arena) that drives people to what many of us consider unseemly revelation. And just like in the old days at the Coliseum, the more blood, the better.

The Money Shot explores the cultural blurring of class distinctions and the exploitative nature of daytime talk in a celebrity-driven culture where the desire to be a "star" leads people to do anything from eat bug larvae to revealing their most intimate sexual secrets on TV, consequences be damned.

The consequences, Grindstaff's thesis asserts, include inuring the entire culture to real tragedy. Few tragedies can equal 9-11, yet after the hundredth tearful interview, the poignancy begins to fade, replaced by a callous yet overwhelming desire to change the channel.

Grindstaff presents smart and intriguing arguments for how this cultural phenomenon developed, why it has prospered and why it has yet, despite bad press, to decline. Sharp, engaging and vividly compelling, The Money Shot reveals more than we might want to know about ourselves and our culture.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of numerous books. Her weekly column on TV and politics, "The Lavender Tube," appears in newspapers throughout the United States. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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