When considering the worst job on earth -- the least rewarding, most exhausting, evil, cruel and unusual daily punishment ever, the kind of job that would make me want to hammer a meat thermometer into my own temple -- I've always thought of mining. To get paid nearly nothing to spend all day in a dark, hot, malodorous hole, only to die young of silicosis or worse -- no profession, I figured, could possibly prompt as many screams of occupationally inspired terror.
But lo and behold, Laura Grindstaff, a sociology professor at the University of California at Davis, has managed to throw my conclusion into doubt. Her new book, "The Money Shot: Trash, Class and the Making of TV Talk Shows," convincingly makes the case that TV talk-show producers have the worst gig going.
These people spend their days and nights wooing and catering to the most difficult members of society, everyone from drug addicts to wife beaters to the emotionally disturbed. They work crazy long hours, make less money than their prime-time peers, and are generally treated by the public and the guests themselves as the bottom-feeding, slime-oozing slugs of American culture. It's no wonder, Grindstaff argues, that "the emotional labor required of producers in securing emotional displays from guests leaves them wondering two things: how much longer can I do this? And, should I be doing this at all?"
Of course, inspiring sympathy for producers is hardly Grindstaff's primary purpose. She spent more than a year working at two unnamed TV talk shows, one on the trashier end of the spectrum, the other more respected, and her book is a broad ethnographic account of the experience. It's also, she writes, a treatise on the way that daytime talk shows "both challenge and reinscribe long-standing hierarchies between high and low culture, expert and ordinary knowledge, and the ways in which these hierarchies are related to social especially class inequality."
This is all true, but academic goals aside, the book mainly reads like an intelligent insider's account of the sensational sausage factory called daytime TV. It's a credit to Grindstaff's skills as an interviewer, observer and writer that the first impression you come away with is not a dry and professorial one, but rather a personal one. She fosters a sense of empathy with the shame of those who toil in the trenches of trash. Indeed, what sets Grindstaff apart from most media critics who have addressed the genre is her ability to walk the line between stinging critique and enthusiastic rave. She never revels in the stink of daytime TV, nor does she offer a paternalistic indictment (à la William Bennett) or a liberal acquittal (see Barbara Ehrenreich). Instead, she set out to understand rather than to judge, to grasp how producers, guests and experts combine to form thunderous emotional climaxes -- the "money shots" of the title -- every day. Despite some occasionally arid writing, Grindstaff largely succeeds.
She begins by humanizing producers, who do things like insist on dressing guests in provocative clothes because, Grindstaff argues, they are both creators of the genre's sensationalistic focus and slaves to the competitive need for high ratings. From there, Grindstaff moves on to the guests. Their ideas, motivations and flaws are all profiled in anecdotal detail. Why would someone willingly appear on a show whose premise is "Transsexuals Attack!" or "Mom, why did you abuse me?" What possible satisfaction can they get from announcing to the nation that they, say, slept with their sister's husband or can't live without a man? Do they have regrets? Those are just a few of the questions that Grindstaff poses, and the answers turn out to be surprising.
For example, the assumption that guests appear on talk shows simply because they selfishly enjoy the attention, or because they are manipulated into appearing, seems to be without merit. It's not uncommon to find guests who are extremely goal oriented: people like Anitra, a guest on a "Dysfunctional Families" segment of "The Jenny Jones Show," who says she went on the show "because my girlfriend said, 'If you get national attention to your case, maybe your sister will leave you alone'"; or Nancy, a guest on a show about "Abusive Relationships," who figured, "If I was going to be involved in this issue of, uh, battered women's syndrome, then why not? [Daytime talk] would be a good arena for me to get into."
Most people who go on talk shows are also far more media savvy than generally assumed. They often know how they're expected to perform and have no problem complying. They tend to leave feeling no more exploited by producers than anyone else who has had their thoughts turned into a sound bite in a newspaper or TV news story -- and many are hardly ignorant about how their appearance will be perceived by the culture at large. In the words of one woman, a drug addict who agreed to be confronted by her children for a show called "My Mom Needs Help": "I knew that I might be humiliated, but I was pretty excited about going."
If that kind of statement seems strange to us, Grindstaff suggests, it's only because we refuse to admit that media exposure of any kind can bring rewards. For some guests, like Nancy, talk shows offer the chance to "get the word out" on an issue like abusive relationships. For others, an episode of afternoon schlock provides a free vacation to wherever the show is filmed or the chance to confront a relative or friend in an environment where the person can't or won't run away from The Painful Truth.
For every guest who winds up suing a talk show, or worse (in 1996, Warner Bros. was sued for negligence after a gay man on "The Jenny Jones Show" revealed his crush on a co-worker and was later shot by the other man), there are hundreds who say they got what they wanted out of the experience. Some, like Charlotte, who had been duped by a bigamist, even appear on several shows in a row "as a way to turn a bad situation to her advantage," Grindstaff writes.
This is not to say that freaks have been banished from the airwaves. People with serious problems -- such as Casey, a crack-addicted bisexual male prostitute and pimp who appeared on "The Jerry Springer Show" to confront his wayward niece, a prostitute herself -- can always be found on afternoon television on one show or another. And, yes, just as you suspected, some of those guests are faking it. Many of those charlatans, including one who brags to Grindstaff about his ability to get on "all the 3 o'clock shows," manipulate producers whenever they can.
But for the most part "guests who desire television exposure want to leave a mark on the world, however small or fleeting or disdained," Grindstaff writes. And who are we to condemn them for that? When "the desire to leave a mark is surely common to all classes and strata of society," she argues, guests don't deserve to be criticized for living out their dream on daytime TV.
And yet, Grindstaff argues, even if guests deserve more respect, even if the average producer can't be labeled a contemporary Mephistopheles, talk shows shouldn't be declared harmless. Claims that viewers imitate the shows' violence and dysfunction have been greatly exaggerated, Grindstaff writes, but ultimately, "there are serious problems with talk shows." She feels that they simplify and distort reality while taking advantage of society's ills.
As the final third of "The Money Shot" demonstrates, every talk show, from "Oprah" to "Jerry Springer," elevates emotion over information, confrontation over rational debate. Experts are shunted to the side or added as an afterthought, like square intellectual croutons, while guests regularly leave the studios disappointed. Some even end up with emotional, legal or physical scars. Vince, the bigamist who took advantage of Charlotte and several other wives, for example, suffered a string of obscene phone calls from people who saw him on TV, and he remains convinced that he received harsher treatment in court because of his appearance on the show.
The result, according to Grindstaff, is a solidification of class stereotypes. Each show, in varying degrees, reinforces preconceptions of class, encouraging us to think that the poor blather on about their problems, lie, fight, cheat and do drugs, while those in the middle and upper classes know better. Grindstaff seems most bothered (and surprised) by the fact that the producers are unaware "of the role that the genre itself plays in constructing the lower class as something for which it is difficult to feel anything but disdain."
It's a matter of bias. Talk-show staffers associate dramatic confrontation and extreme social problems with their guests, who are described by one producer as "white trash, black trash, Hispanic -- any kind of, like, low-caliber people." And rather than let ordinary people's stories define whether this is in fact the case, they simply reject those who don't fit the stereotype. The thoughtful, the articulate, the calm -- all those members of the lower classes are jettisoned for their hopped-up counterparts. Ratings, not reality, rule.
What Grindstaff tries to emphasize, however, is that talk shows simply reflect societal prejudices. The shows are not the root cause of the dramas played out on their stages. So, while talk shows are imperfect, "there are serious problems with the 'respectable' media too, and even more serious problems with society at large," Grindstaff writes. "It is therefore important not to scapegoat talk shows for the activities and practices common to the media more generally or to use talk shows (or the media more generally) as a way of not talking about society's most pressing social problems."
In other words, talk shows amplify our problems, but they're not nearly as bad as the problems themselves. That may in fact be true; Barbara Ehrenreich and others have also argued that talk shows are not our culture's most egregious evil. Nonetheless, I still think I'd rather be a newspaper reporter than TV talk-show producer. And when faced with the possibility of working in a job that depends on getting people to fight, scream and bare all before the cameras, I might even prefer to be underground -- digging out coal.