STRANGE CREATURES are lurking in our living rooms: skinheads, Nazis, male strippers, women mud wrestlers, and, of course, transvestites. They reside in our television sets and come out of hiding each day, courtesy of the talk shows.
Ah, the talk shows. What began as harmless entertainment with Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson has evolved into lurid exploitation with Phil Donahue, Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jesse Raphael and, of course, Morton Downey Jr.
Until this year, the American public took the talk shows for granted. There they were, safely tucked away on a daytime schedule, television haven houses for society's lost and looney.
You wanted male strippers, you turned on Donahue. You wanted to know about women who married women; you flipped on Sally. Maybe listening to teen-age killers is your bag, so you tuned in the warm and sensitive and formerly fat Oprah Winfrey.
This was all fine and dandy until Geraldo Rivera and Morton Downey came on the scene in the past 12 months. Suddenly, the rules and -- more importantly for television -- the ratings have changed.
In place of the usual sensationalism and sexual perversity came a far more powerful audience bait: violent verbal and sometimes physical confrontations.
On stage Downey verbally abused a female guest a few weeks ago, standing nose to nose with her, screaming in her face that she was a "slut" and "bitch," as the audience howled with delight.
Should we be worry about such scenes and words coming out of our television sets? "Relax. America will survive the talk shows," Phil Donahue said in an interview on the Cable News Network. Of course this is the same Phil Donahue who came on recent show wearing a red dress for a program on "cross dressing." This is the same Phil Donahue who climbed in the ring with a women wrestler and pinned her on her back after giving her a body slam.
"I cannot make it over the long haul without once in a while bringing on a male stripper," Donahue said. "Television's problem is not controversy; it's blandness."
Phil may be right and America may survive the talk shows, but will the talk shows survive the talk shows? Or will somebody, eventually, be murdered on the air. It is not as far fetched as it sounds. That is why there is a metal detector through which guests and audience must pass in order to enter Downey's studio.
Two incidents in the past three months raised concern about the level of violence on talk shows.
In September, Roy Innis, a black activist, appeared on Downey's show with the Rev. Al Sharpton, another black activist.
Innis currently espouses a conservative philosophy, and during a heated exchange with Sharpton, rose from his seat and pushed Sharpton off the back of an elevated stage to the floor. The two men appeared ready to exchange blows and had be separated by security forces.
Then, in November, Innis appeared on Rivera's show on "Young Hatemongers" with John Metzger, who heads the White Aryan Resistance Youth. During that program, Metzger called Innis an "Uncle Tom," among other racial slurs.
Innis rose from his seat and grabbed Metzger by the throat and lifted him up. Soon the stage was crowded with skinheads and Innis supporters throwing punches in a full-scale TV riot. In the ensuing melee, a chair was thrown at Rivera and broke his nose.
Guess where Geraldo wound up? On the cover of Newsweek. What did Geraldo have to say about all this? "I'd like to go at him (his attacker) again," he told the New York Post. "I'd like to pound that coward again."
And what did Geraldo think of Innis' choking a fellow guest on stage? "I think Roy did the right thing, the heroic thing," Rivera said."
What's going on here? How did talk shows get to this state. Consider that in 1960, Jack Paar walked off the "Tonight Show" because the NBC network censored a joke he told about "water closets." NBC found that term too offensive for the nation.
Not anymore. These days, as Geraldo and company have proved, anything goes when it comes to talk shows.
"I think it's a cycle and I don't think it's going to last," said Brian Kahle, co-host of "A.M. Buffalo," shown at 10 a.m weekdays on Channel 7. "A.M. Buffalo" is the longest running local TV talk show, and Kahle has been with the show since its inception 10 years ago.
The nationally syndicated shows like Geraldo (Channel 7, 9 a.m.), Donahue (Channel 4, 9 a.m.), Sally Jesse Raphael (Channel 4, 10 a.m.) and Downey (Channel 49, 8 p.m.) have caused many stations to cancel locally produced talk shows.
"There's too much of this on TV today," Kahle said, alluding to the Downey type of show. "You either have to go the low road and appeal to sex organs or take the high road and try to reach people with with issues that are relevant and important to their lives.
"I think, eventually, the show that takes the low road will go off the air. I doubt if Downey will be on long. I give him two
years at the most. You can only take so much of a steady diet of that junk."
Ironically, Kahle's most famous moment on "A.M. Buffalo" came during a stinging confrontation with Mayor Griffin. The two men exchanged heated words in August 1987, and Kahle terminated the interview while the mayor stalked off stage.
That type of interview was out of character for Kahle, who normally uses a soft-spoken but inquisitive probing interview style. He said there is no way he could play a talk show role like Downey's.
"Could I do that every night? No," Kahle said. "You have to live with yourself and you have to be honest with yourself. What Downey does is an act, and I can't do that."
IT IS UP to the host of a talk show to set the standards and decorum, and that's what Kahle believes Geraldo failed to do during the skinhead riot.
"I blame Geraldo for that," Kahle said. "I felt by bringing the two groups on the same set and encouraging them to go at each other, Geraldo instigated it.
"I'm against censorship and I'm not opposed to putting any subject on the air. But it has to be done in a responsible way."
Will we ever see skinheads and sexual perverts on "A.M. Buffalo"? "We don't do wackos and weirdos because we don't have access to them here," Kahle said. "Not that I wouldn't put them on, but there are no transsexual priests in Buffalo."
Cindy Abbott, Kahle's co-host, has been on "A.M. Buffalo" for eight years. She believes deregulation and the lack of government control has been partly to blame for some of the current wave of talk show hysteria.
There was a time the Federal Communications Commission would have objected to profane language and violence on the air, but in the current deregulatory era, such antics flourish.
"That scares me," Abbott said. "Who is going to stop these shows and say, this is going to far?"
Technology has also opened up the talk show airwaves. Downey would have never seen the light of a tube in the old days of network television. Now, however, with dozens of cable channels and independent stations, there is room for Downey or just about anyone else.
"What really bothers me is that so many kids watch these shows," Abbott said. "Kids watch Downey and see people screaming at each other and abusing each other and sometimes getting violent on the air. To kids, it may seem like acceptable behavior."
Abbott and Kahle expressed disappointment with Donahue, who until recently had a reputation for doing serious, thoughtful programs. It was Donahue who broke ground in the mid 1960s by putting thought-provoking and serious subjects on daytime TV.
"I interviewed Donahue once, and he told me the reason for his success was that he didn't underestimate his audience," Abbott said. "I thought that was important. Whether it shows in the ratings or not, I don't know."
THERE IS another factor in all this: credibility. Just by appearing on television, the violent and fringe groups develop credibility, change their image and gain a certain standing in the community beyond the television audience.
John Otto has been on the air for more than 25 years and has witnessed the evolution of talk shows. Though Otto said he has been contacted by groups like the neo Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, he has refused to put them on the air.
"I can't persuade myself that groups like that have a legitimate political position or rational argument," said Otto, host of nightly talk show on WGR radio.
Despite his views, Otto admires Geraldo. "Everybody seems to condemn him, but he's fearless," Otto said. "He will go into the pit with the worse kind of antagonist. I like him, but I don't go for Downey. He's too abusive."
Otto believes television talk shows are lowering their standards for ratings. "Clearly, there is a reach for sensationalism," Otto said. "Every other talk show on television seems to be a confessional of sorts."
Television talk shows seem to bring out the worst in guests. Otto remembered that he had Innis as a guest on his radio show a few years ago. During that segment, one caller phoned in, insulted Innis and called him an "Uncle Tom."
"Innis didn't froth at the mouth or anything," Otto said. "It didn't seem to bother him, and he took it stride. Innis was a nice man, at least with me," Otto said. The same words moved Innis to violence on Geraldo. Why? Maybe it was the camera, the changing times or the new talk show morality.
What does the future hold for the tabloid TV talk shows? "I don't know," Abbott said. "How long can you spew hate?"
Phil Donahue put it another way. "The common sense of the viewing audience will be the deciding factor," he said. "When we go too far, we will fall of our own way."
Modern Cast/Today's talk show hosts include from left Geraldo Rivera, Morton Downey Jr. and Phil Donahue