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From "classy" shows like Oprah to "trashy" shows like Jerry Springer, the key to a talk show's success is what Laura Grindstaff calls the money shot—moments when guests lose control and express joy, sorrow, rage, or remorse on camera. In this new work, Grindstaff takes us behind the scenes of daytime television talk shows, a genre focused on "real" stories told by "ordinary" people. Drawing on extensive interviews with producers and guests, her own attendance of dozens of live tapings around the country, and more than a year's experience working on two nationally televised shows, Grindstaff shows us how producers elicit dramatic performances from guests, why guests agree to participate, and the supporting roles played by studio audiences and experts.
Grindstaff traces the career of the money shot, examining how producers make stars and experts out of ordinary people, in the process reproducing old forms of cultural hierarchy and class inequality even while seeming to challenge them. She argues that the daytime talk show does give voice to people normally excluded from the media spotlight, but it lets them speak only in certain ways and under certain rules and conditions. Working to understand the genre from the inside rather than pass judgment on it from the outside, Grindstaff asks not just what talk shows can tell us about mass media, but also what they reveal about American culture more generally.
"Hello Diana. This is Carrie, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I'm calling in
regards to the show you're advertising on the TV there about 'Toxic
Relationships.' About people who are always putting you down. Well, I
reunited with my biological father back in 1990, and, I don't know, it
seems like everything I do just isn't good enough for him. I do a lot for
my father; I try to do all the things a good daughter is supposed to do.
But he just doesn't-"
At this point the caller began to cry, and the tape beeped, cutting her
off before she had time to leave her telephone number. I sighed and
adjusted my headphones more comfortably around my ears. The producers
would never have phoned her back, anyway; her story wasn't unusual or
dramatic enough. She did cry easily, however, and that was in her favor.
Transcribing the 800 line was one of my least favorite jobs as an intern.
As much as I sympathized with the people who called in-the majority of
them women-it was tedious, recording this endless litany of heartache and
complaint. Callers rambled onand on, and they never seemed to get to the
point. Sighing again, I cued the tape to the next call.
"Hi Diana. I'm calling about the upcoming Mother's Day makeover show-"
I cut her off there and fast-forwarded to the next call. The producers had
more than enough potential makeover candidates.
"Hello. My name is Carlos. I'm seventeen years old. You were asking about
'Runaway Gay Teens.' I'm gay, and I went to a club one night, and a man,
he, uh, he raped me and one of my friends by gunpoint. And if I would've
turned him in, my parents would've found out I'm gay. So I ran away to
Orlando and, uh, went into prostitution. And my parents are having a
really hard time with it ... they're really religious and stuff, and I
just want to be who I am, and I, I really need to talk to somebody about
it. And I would love more than anything to be on your show, Diana. 'Cause
you're the best. My telephone number is-"
I was poised to write down the number when suddenly I felt a sharp tap on
my right shoulder. I hit the pause button on the tape recorder and turned
"Here, the name tags are ready. Run them down to the dressing rooms, and
then stay there because the first guests are due to arrive any minute-I'll
be along as soon as I can."
The order came from Heidi, the talent coordinator, who was rifling through
a stack of consent forms. Her face was flushed and her voice full of
tension. Pushing back from the table, I tossed my headphones aside,
grabbed my clipboard, and left the bustling production office for Stage 12
on the other side of the studio lot. Outside, the sun was blinding as it
bounced off the metal siding of the surrounding buildings, and the
ever-present din of construction rose faintly in the distance.
Within minutes I was at the stage, an immense warehouse containing more
offices, dressing rooms, a lounge and kitchen area, the "green room," a
control booth, editing suites, and a huge set with seating for roughly two
hundred audience members. This is where The Diana Show is taped, one of a
dozen or so daytime talk shows produced in the United States, and one of
two produced at Zenith Studios. At the sight of a stretch limousine parked
at the rear entrance, my heart sank: at least one guest had already
arrived. I took the stairs two at a time and went inside, greeted by a
blast of cold air and the distant shouts of George, the stage manager, who
was complaining about the position of the overhead floodlights. A large,
dark-haired woman I didn't recognize sat alone on one of the couches in
the lounge clutching her purse-one of the guests, very pale, and clearly
nervous. The first show today was about childhood sexual abuse, and, on
the basis of the script that I photocopied for the producers, I guessed
that this was Karen, a young woman repeatedly molested by an uncle.
"You must be Karen, our guest of honor." I smiled warmly and extended my
hand, introducing myself as an intern and Heidi's assistant.
I took Karen first to one of the dressing rooms, fixing her name tag to
the metal plate on the door just below the gold star, then to the green
room, which was equipped with couches, a television monitor, and an
assortment of catered foods. By this time Heidi had arrived, along with
the two producers for today's show and most of the technical crew and
support staff. People rushed back and forth, readying equipment and
attending to last-minute details. The studio audience was filing in; I
could hear the comedian doing his warm-up routine every time the outer
door to the set swung open ("Why is it that, when a man talks dirty to a
woman it's sexual harassment, but when a woman talks dirty to a man it's
three dollars a minute?"). The remaining guests were also arriving,
including an incest survivor, a boy abused by his baby-sitter, a convicted
pedophile, and a psychologist/expert. Heidi gave me explicit instructions
to keep the pedophile as far from the other guests as possible until
taping began to avoid any friction. This proved easy enough, as the man
stayed in his dressing room with the door closed until called by the
wardrobe personnel to get his hair and makeup done.
While Heidi made the rounds securing written consent from the guests for
their participation, the stage manager wired them for sound, and the
producers prepared them for key questions that Diana, the host, would ask
on the air. The "ordinary" guests who were neither experts nor celebrities
always needed a little extra reassurance before going on television for
the first time, and, in this particular interaction, the producers made a
special effort to position them as experts, too, of a sort-experts on
their own personal experience. I knew the routine by heart:
"Just relax; you'll do fine. This is your life, you've lived it, so
there's no wrong answers. Just tell it like it is, straight from the
heart. Don't hold back on those emotions because this is your big chance
to show millions of people you really care about this issue. And don't be
shy-this is your show, so if you have something to say, jump right in
there. Now, when Diana asks you to describe the first time your husband
beat you, what are you going to say?"
Finally, the executive producer, supervising producer, and director
appeared backstage at the same time Diana herself emerged from her
dressing room. Taping would begin in fifteen minutes. Diana said a few
words of welcome to each guest, then went out to greet the audience. I
raced back across the lot to the production offices for the third time
that afternoon to retrieve a set of photographs that had to be scanned and
prepared for use later in the show. The office was just as busy as before
since there would be a second taping later in the day and two more
tomorrow. I delivered the photos to the graphics department and took my
seat in the control booth above the set just as the director started the
countdown. The room was cool and dark, illuminated primarily by the double
row of television monitors in the far wall above the editing console. The
soundboard looked like a miniature city block sprinkled with neon lights.
It was my job to answer the phones in the booth so that those working
there were not disturbed during the taping. For me, it was the most
interesting of all my duties as an intern because I got to witness two
performances at once: that of the host and guests onstage and that of the
production staff around me.
"Cold open-no music, no applause!" the director shouted. "Three! Two! One!
Roll tape!" The camera was tight on the first guest, Karen, a victim of
childhood molestation, who spoke of the abuse that she suffered as a child
every holiday when her uncle came to visit. Her voice was high and clear,
with a faint Southern accent. Diana, the show's host, prodded for more
details, and Karen obliged, tears welling up in her big brown eyes. I
could feel the tension rise in the control booth; we were simultaneously
horrified by her suffering, incredulous that she would discuss it on
national television, and elated that she was doing so with such visible
emotion-especially with the November ratings sweeps just around the
corner. When the woman broke into sobs describing the time her uncle
"shared" her with a friend, the look of triumph on the producer's face
told me that this show was indeed a "sweeper." The segment ended with the
introductory credit sequence accompanied by the trademark Diana music, and
then the director cut to a commercial. As soon as the stage manager gave
the "clear" signal, the silence in the booth gave way to the buzz of
When taping resumed a few minutes later, eight-year-old Troy described how
his baby-sitter forced him to perform various sex acts over a period of
several years, threatening to kill him if he ever told anyone. Troy's
mother begged parents to be ever vigilant when trusting the care of their
children to others. "What happened to us could happen to you too!" she
said, dabbing delicately at the corners of her eyes with a tissue. Because
they were African American, Troy and his mother satisfied the show's
mandate for "diversity" on the panel. In a different way, so did the next
guest to appear, a convicted child molester out of jail on parole. White,
well dressed, and in his early thirties, he was, Diana announced,
participating in a radical new therapy that brought perpetrators and
victims together in direct confrontation.
"What's so radical about that?" the script supervisor sneered from his
seat beside the director. "Talk shows have been doing it for years!"
No sooner had the molester taken his seat than audience members, roused by
the testimony of the first three guests, began to denounce him as sick and
perverted. A short, gray-haired, elderly woman stood up and called him a
messenger of the devil. I wondered aloud at the man's decision to appear
on the show. The sound technician sitting next to me simply shook his head
in disgust-whether at the pedophile, at the show for giving him a
platform, or at the behavior of the audience, I couldn't tell. The phone
at my elbow rang; I put the caller on hold until the commercial break.
The next guest waiting in the wings was Margaret, the incest survivor. I
knew that the two producers for today's topic had disagreed about whether
to lead with Margaret or with Karen. Margaret's sexual history was more
sensational because she had been raped repeatedly by her father and then
again by her first boyfriend, but Karen was more emotional during the
preinterview ("fresh" and "raw," as the producers put it) and thus
promised a better performance. At the eleventh hour, they decided to use
Karen up front to draw the audience in and bring Margaret on later as a
success story and role model for other survivors since she now runs a
women's political-advocacy organization in San Francisco. Margaret was
also, apparently, lesbian, for the host read the following tease off the
prompter before breaking to another commercial: "Up next is a woman whose
history of sexual abuse by the men in her life caused her to give up on
guys altogether! Don't go away!"
This was Margaret's cue to walk onstage. We waited for what seemed like
minutes, but she didn't appear in the monitors. Suddenly, the director
took off his headset and turned to the supervising producer.
"Bob, we've got problems. That Margaret lady got mad and took off. Just
threw down her wireless and took off. Jackie is going crazy down there on
the floor; you better see what's going on."
Bob sprang to his feet, disentangling himself from his own headset as he
rushed out the door, cursing under his breath. I sat for a few minutes not
knowing quite what to do. I turned to the technician. Had this ever
happened before? He said no, not to his knowledge, and asked me to pass
him the sports section of the paper. I glanced over at the others in the
room. The sound man and chyron operator were discussing the show's
desperate need for better, high-tech equipment, while the assistant
director and script supervisor debated the merits of fake versus real
Christmas trees. The director was yelling at somebody on the phone. Taking
a chance that the other line wouldn't ring, I slipped away and headed down
to the set to see what more I could learn.
The camera operators and various other technical staff had gathered at the
edge of the stage. Diana was standing in front facing the audience,
explaining that the delay in production was due to a technical problem
with the sound system. The producer and associate producer for today's
topic were nowhere to be seen, nor was the executive producer or
supervising producer. I learned from a stagehand that all four were
outside in the parking lot with Margaret. It took them almost an hour to
figure out why she was upset and persuade her to return. It seems that,
when Margaret heard Diana introduce her as a woman whose history of sexual
abuse caused her to "turn gay," she bolted because she felt that the
description was silly and untrue. She insisted that the topic of the show
was childhood sexual abuse, not lesbianism, and that the matter of her
sexual orientation was not open for discussion on the air-she had made
that very clear to the producers. At this point the executive producer
apologized for the mistake, blaming it on miscommunication between the
associate producer, who conducted the original preinterview, and the
producer, who wrote the final script. They promised to rewrite Margaret's
introduction and tape it again.
Meanwhile, back in the booth, the crew was getting irritable. There was
another show after this one, and we were hours behind schedule-after
Margaret, there was still the expert psychologist to get through. I knew
that it would be quite late before I left the lot. Just as I was picking
up the phone to cancel my evening dinner plans, Heidi rang on the other
line. She was sending another intern to relieve me in the booth because
she wanted my help backstage with the changeover; the guests for the
second show were starting to arrive, and we had to clear the dressing
rooms for them. Ordinarily, when guests overlapped, we would put the
overflow in portable trailers outside, but, because the second show
featured "industry people," we couldn't do that. The topic was "Former
Child Stars: The High Price of Fame" (back in the production office it was
known as "Hollywood Has-Beens"). Heidi was anxious and stressed.
Celebrities, even B-grade celebrities willing to appear on a daytime talk
show, did not like to wait around. All five guests were former child stars
from 1960s television sitcoms, three still eking out a living as actors,
the other two having left the industry for jobs in the "real" world. All
had been negatively affected by early fame. Overall, the show went
smoothly; the producers relied heavily on visual elements such as
photographs and old sitcom footage to vary the pace and keep audience
members engaged. It was almost 10 p.m.
Excerpted from The Money Shot
by Laura Grindstaff
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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