‘Father knows best’
This paper examines two realisations of the television talk show in North America: The Oprah Winfrey Show and Dr. Phil, looking specifically at how they function within the sub-genre of ‘therapeutic talk show’ in keeping with Livingstone and Lunt’s (1994) classification of talk shows. Talk shows are defined by Ilie (2001) as “semi-institutional discourse” having features of a given setting (TV studio), topic- and goal-oriented talk, high degree of topic control, as well as restrictions on time and turn-taking. Theorists examining this sub-genre of therapeutic talk show have argued that it provides a valuable means by which stories otherwise unrecognized have a forum, or that values of truth and honesty can be conveyed (Livingstone & Lunt 1994; Masciarotte 1991; Carbaugh 1988). However, theorists such as Abt and Seesholtz (1994) view therapeutic talk shows as potentially demeaning to guests who appear on them as well as a means by which suffering can be trivialized. Through an examination and analysis of requests for information, both direct and indirect, which are the principal features of all interviews, I look at how Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil problematize the narratives told by their guests. Both hosts rely heavily on one type of request, B-Event assertions functioning as indirect requests for information, to provoke specific response. My findings indicate that these talk shows do not in fact provide a forum for talk that would otherwise not be considered as suggested by Livingstone and Lunt (1994). Both Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil appropriate the stories provided by their guests; they also participate in their own overarching meta-narrative whereby as ‘heroes’ they solve their guests’ problems within a given time frame. Guests’ narrative responses share more with the speech act of confession than with free self-expression. The speech act of confession encouraged by these therapeutic talk shows serves in turn to reinforce conservatively-held values on the part of the at-home audience for whom such confession is also entertainment.
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