Cinema and Media Studies Talk Shows
Helen Wood, Jilly Kay
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0181


The television talk show phenomenon took hold in the 1990s particularly in Western countries, but it has its precedents in earlier radio broadcasting. The talk show broadly refers to a style of unscripted discussion that privileges audience participation. The label has been used to describe a range of formats from celebrity interviews, conversations between elite peers, roundtable discussions, to talk between “ordinary people,” usually in a studio audience. It gained wider media attention and notoriety through participants’ engagement in rowdy and even violent behavior. The talk show has opened up an arena for “ordinary people” to speak in public, which has spurred a broad range of evaluations. More public-issue shows have been credited with providing a forum where formal institutions meet the public, leading some to describe them as “infotainment” or “democratainment”; other shows have emphasized spectacle and conflict and have been labeled “trashy” or “freakshows.” Key theoretical terrain operates around assessing the success of the talk show in constructing a form of public sphere. The feminization of talk has also been discussed as valuable to a broader project of feminism. The space for giving voice to diverse social groups has also been discussed in relation to identity politics and recognition. On the other hand, the emphasis upon spectacle has sometimes been taken as a broader marker of television’s faltering role in the commercialization and dumbing down of the media. The industry’s use of the general public for cheap programming has generated interest in the ethical production of talk and the politics of ownership. Similar questions have underpinned debates around the relationship between the talk show and formal politics, questioning the democratic nature of debate and the influence over critical journalism. Work from a linguistic background has been interested in the talk itself and how the forms of interaction are developed and performed in the broadcast setting. Although the production of scholarship on the talk show has slowed down somewhat as the genre has morphed into various other types of unscripted talk and reality television, some key themes still endure. The global spread of the format has led to the assessment of the talk show in relation to formations of national identity and sometimes even political struggle. Some celebrities have taken advantage of the forms of audience connection that the talk show invites, spawning a host of literature on the Oprah phenomenon. There is also an ongoing interest in the talk show audience and how talk is received at home as part of broader projects of self-reflexivity and interpretation, placing the genre at the forefront of discussions about media participation.

General Overviews and Histories

There are a number of key texts that take on board the evolution of the talk show and tend to take a position in relation to key shifts in contemporary culture. Some of these will be taken up as individual themes later in the article. Some discuss the explosion of the genre and its relationship to broader changes within the industry such as Kurtz 1997 and Timberg 2002. Munson 1994 informs the discussion in terms of the genre’s relationship with the development of talk on radio and its disruptive possibilities. Most see the arrival of new voices as politically ambiguous, simultaneously opening up a cacophony of noise, but at the same time regulating talk in relation to a broader political move toward the personal and the therapeutic. Quail, et al. 2005 posits the most cautionary position in relation to the corporate manipulation of talk in the pursuit of profit, charting the relationship between industry distribution and programming. However, Livingstone and Lunt 1994 intervention speaks to audiences as well as participants and discovers the benefits for the audience at the home, while seeing what kind of public sphere the talk show could make possible. Dovey 2000 suggests that there are broader social shifts at work behind “first person media” in the performance of spectacle that bring everyday morality to public discussion. Shattuc 1997 is emblematic of work that discusses the relationship of the form to the feminization of talk and to broader shifts around the personalization of the public sphere and the prominence of therapy culture. There has been a tendency to evaluate the talk show in terms of how it offers progressive forms of discussion for liberal democracies, but as these key texts show, the talk show is difficult to pin down precisely because of its instability and mutability. What is consistent is that all the texts stress the significance of the talk show as emblematic of key shifts in public culture. Hilmes and Loviglio 2002 on radio provides important historical context to these debates, offering insights into earlier forms of broadcast talk, radio’s innovations in the development of talk-based genres, and its continuing role in constructing counter-public spaces.

  • Dovey, John. Freakshow: First Person Media and Factual Television. London: Pluto, 2000.

    Discusses the relationship of the talk show with other “first person media” and suggests affinities with documentary forms and reality television. Talk shows have a role in confessional culture as part of broader social shifts in transformations of intimacy, drawing on arguments from social theory.

  • Hilmes, Michele, and Jason Loviglio, eds. Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

    This edited collection, while not explicitly dealing with the talk show phenomenon, nevertheless points to the ways in which talk-based radio has been intimately bound up with broader shifts in American culture and society. It draws attention to the significance of early radio in its pioneering of broadcast formats, such as the audience participation show.

  • Kurtz, Howard. Hot Air: All Talk All the Time. New York: Times, 1997.

    Although this is written in a mostly journalistic style, it is often referenced in other texts because of its detailing of the rise of talk show culture across entertainment and politics in America.

  • Livingstone, Sonia, and Peter Lunt. Talk on Television: Audience Participation and Public Debate. London: Routledge, 1994.

    Brings together analyses of a range of television talk show texts with interviews with studio participants and audiences at home to consider the relevance of public-private discussion for the public sphere. It sees the value of the open-ended discussion for some viewers, while also evaluating various claims for the public value of participatory media.

  • Munson, Wayne. All Talk: The Talk Show in Media Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

    Captures the complexity of the evolution of the talk show and discusses the precedents for the role of “ordinary people” in talk discussion as a form of folk culture. Traces shifts from radio to television and disruptions in hierarchies of voice in reconfiguring the public sphere.

  • Quail, Christine M., Kathalene A. Razzaro, and Loubna H. Skalli. Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Talk Shows. New York: Peter Lang, 2005.

    Primarily concerned with the role of corporate media in the formation of US talk shows. Also involves essays on the key debates in relation to the talk show in relation to the negotiation of different forms of expertise, the use of spectacle, the display of bodies, and the definition of the legal ramifications of talk show disclosure.

  • Shattuc, Jane. The Talking Cure: TV Talk Shows and Women. New York: Routledge, 1997.

    While offering a chapter on the evolution of talk shows, the book charts the relationship of the genre with feminized forms of speech, the construction of femininity and identity politics. It draws out the tensions between any feminist politics on the one hand, and the popularization of therapy with “women as problem,” on the other.

  • Timberg, Bernard M. Television Talk: A History of the TV Talk Show. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

    Gives an overview of the evolution of the genre in the United States and discusses the economic, regulatory, and technological contexts that influence shifts in talk programming. Speaks to the broader influence of American social history.

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