Friday, March 13, 2009

We've Got To Remember Some Things! Morton Downey Jr.

Another Creative Idea! Well, maybe.

Who could forget this face?

And his idea and formula:

Screaming audience + Screaming Guest + Screaming Obnoxious chain smoking Host


Successful Talk Show!

In case you were sitting around the house wondering where "Trash TV" originated -

Morton Downey, Jr. (born Sean Morton Downey; December 9, 1933 - March 12, 2001) was an American talk show host of the 1980s. He is given credit for pioneering the "trash TV" format. His work led to the "trash talk" genre of Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, Ricki Lake, Steve Wilkos and many more....

Morton Downey Jr. started as a talk show host at KFBK-AM in Sacramento, California. His abrasive and right wing style quickly made him popular in a somewhat local market. His nationwide fame, however, came when he left Sacramento for Secaucus, New Jersey where his highly controversial television program took off. The show was taped for two years before it was canceled for low ratings. During those two years the show enjoyed a brief bit of fame and fortune. The program featured screaming matches among Downey, his guests, and his audience members. Downey was known for using a large silver bowl for an ashtray, he would chain smoke during the show and blow smoke in his guests' faces.

(An interesting tidbit - the man who succeeded Downey at KFBK was Rush Limbaugh.)

I watched a few of his shows in the 80's. I didn't agree with his politics or methodology, but I initially enjoyed the antics. Unfortunately for him, I, as well as many others, grew weary of his obnoxious and deriding behavior. In my estimation, what started as a good plan ultimately backfired on Downey. His audience began to hate and despise him more than his guests. That proved to be a formula for failure because eventually, the viewers just stopped tuning in. I think the new-age Trash TV talk show hosts understand that they have to walk a very fine line. They want to be exciting and stimulating and engaging, but they know that anger and frustration should be focused on the guests and not them. They know that viewers will develop an appetite for the hapless and piteous people and tune in for the shock value alone. Most of them have learned to play "middle-man and mediator" quite well. Egging each side and the audience on without getting trapped in the middle. And it works. People will sit around the house all day and watch reruns of Jerry Springer and then call their friends to discuss the show. People will tune in to see virtually the same scenario with different faces and names attached. - For example, how many times have you seen the paternity suit/Who's your Daddy?/DNA testing format? I can't bear to suffer through it anymore. But occasionally, while I'm channel surfing I'll run across an episode where they are waiting for the lab results to determine paternity.

Anyway, I congratulate the late Morton Downey Jr. for his uniqueness and creativity. His efforts and short-lived success combined with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, are generally cited as the catalysts for the more aggressive, opinion-based (My Way is Right, your way is wrong) talk radio and Trash TV that we enjoy today.

On a different note, I have to giggle when I think about how the Fairness Doctrine came to be repealed. First, here's some background:

The Fairness Doctrine was an attempt to ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station was balanced and fair. "The FCC took the view, in 1949, that station licensees were "public trustees," and as such had an obligation to afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance. The Commission later held that stations were also obligated to actively seek out issues of importance to their community and air programming that addressed those issues."
(see the above link on Fairness Doctrine for more)

In other words, (my words) as a broadcasting company, you just couldn't go out and broadcast one side of an argument or issue. You had to show both sides of the issue and make an attempt to be fair.

So here's some irony - During the recent Presidential election when I was glued to the television and held captive by the political pundits, I heard so many times from McCain/Palin supporters as well as McCain that they were not getting "Fair" coverage by the press. Additionally, they claimed that most, if not all, (Was FOX included?) the stations were broadcasting with bias in favor of Barack Obama.

There was even a huge campaign to get Americans to turn off ABC, CBS, and NBC and not watch these stations for the duration of the election process because they weren't being Fair. Don't believe me....? Click on the link below:

Click Here: Join other Americans who are tired of their promotion of Barack Obama and their attack on Sarah Palin. Take the pledge to not watch ABC, NBC or CBS until after the November elections!

Apparently, nearly 128,000 people joined in.

What if this was true? Let's assume CBS, NBC, and ABC were completely unfair to McCain/Palin. Who do you suppose we could thank for the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine which allowed this to happen?

Let's start with Ronald Reagan.

Are you surprised? Now we all know that Reagan was an American hero who played a huge part in tearing down the Berlin Wall; Some would argue - in much the same way that Al Gore built the Internet - But did you know that during the 80's and the era of deregulation, Reagan appointed Mark Fowler as the Chairman of the FCC. Fowler avowed to kill the fairness doctrine asserting that the doctrine was no longer having its intended effect and might be in violation of the First Amendment. In a 1987 case, Meredith Corp. v. FCC, the courts declared that the doctrine was not mandated by Congress and the FCC did not have to continue to enforce it. The FCC dissolved the doctrine in August of that year. But wait a second, there's more... In the spring of 1987, both houses of Congress voted to put the fairness doctrine into law--a statutory fairness doctrine which the FCC would have to enforce. But President Reagan, in keeping with his deregulation ideas and his long-standing goal of keeping government out of the affairs of business, vetoed the legislation. There were insufficient votes to override the veto. Congress once again tried to make the doctrine into law again during the Daddy Bush administration. As before, the legislation was vetoed, this time by Bush.

Perhaps more interesting is that in 2007 Senator McCain joined Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Norm Coleman (R-MN) to introduce the “Broadcaster Freedom Act.”

The following is taken from McCain's website:


“Since President Reagan’s repeal of the ‘Fairness Doctrine,’ the number of talk radio shows nationwide has grown from fewer than 100 to over 1,000 today. In addition to talk radio, Americans are able to find opposing viewpoints in more places than ever before, including the Internet,” Senator McCain said.

“With the great number of media sources available today, divergent viewpoints do not have to be offered on the same radio or television show, but can be found simply by channel surfing, reading a newspaper or browsing an Internet blog .

“The legislation would prevent the Federal Communications Commission from reinstating the ‘Fairness Doctrine,’ a regulation that had required broadcasters to present opposing viewpoints on issues of public importance. “This regulation had a chilling affect on free speech, and it is hard to imagine that the American people would support reinstating a policy where the Federal government would be required to police the airwaves to ensure differing viewpoints are offered.”

Rush Limbaugh on his radio program said:

"Three salutes to Mike Pence from Indiana. He basically proposed an amendment to disallow federal funds to be used to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, and it won big, 319 to 100-something. When the rubber met the road, the Democrats did not have the guts to vote for this. It wasn't even close."

I'm not claiming that these are ringing endorsements for the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the Broadcaster Freedom Act, but I tend to lean in favor of the repeal of the doctrine. I think there are enough stations and sources out there to adequately reflect most, if not all, sides of important issues. I do find it a tad bit ironic in my mind though that McCain would whine about a system that he helped create, continues to support, and sponsors legislation to ensure it's succession. You can't have it both ways. If you want every station to be "FAIR" then support legislation to that end.

Just my thoughts!

And How does Barack Obama feel about the Fairness Doctrine?

According to an Article in B & C (Broadcasting & Cable) last year -

Obama Does not support the return of Fairness Doctrine!

Obama does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters," press secretary Michael Ortiz said in an e-mail to B&C late Wednesday.

"He considers this debate to be a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible," Ortiz added. "That is why (then) Sen. Obama supports media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets."

Anyway, if you want to read more on the Fairness Doctrine, here are some good reads:

  1. The Fairness Doctrine: A Solution in Search of a Problem - by Adrian Cronauer

  2. After the Fairness Doctrine: Controversial Broadcast Programming and the Public Interest - by Patricia Aufderheide.

  3. The Fairness Doctrine as Public Policy- by Timothy A. Brennan

If you want to study up more on Morton Downey Jr., do some research on his fight with fellow radio talk show host Wally George (each charging that the other was not conservative). This fight led to police tackling Downey to the ground. I couldn't find any vintage footage of this but I'm sure it's out there somewhere.

For sure, Downey has left his mark on Trash TV.

I'm sure he's laughing at us all!

In his characteristic way!

I've posted a few YouTube videos for the memories.


Heather Dugan ("Footsteps") said...

Wow. ~First time I've actually seen him in action, and I have to confess that whole trash TV thing is beyond my personal comprehension.
As for "The Fairness Doctrine" -quantifying what is fair and equal is better left to the consumer who chooses by reading, watching and listening -or not. Admittedly, some candidates are more camera-ready than others, but the Doctrine smacks a little of "you must invite everyone in the class" which is best left in elementary school classrooms in favor of more adult thoughtful decisions. I think that normal curiosities lead us to fill in the informational picture most of the time.

intrepidideas said...

I agree Heather. The Trash TV thing is beyond comprehension. I'm a victim of my own curiosity which sometimes sucks me into watching. I usually regret it.

I have a friend who says "outside of elementary school, Easy and Fair are just four letter words." So naturally I laughed at your comment. So we agree on an intellectual level. Thanks for the visit. I've missed seeing you around.

Jane Turley said...

I saw Jerry Springer a few times when the children were young and I was confined to the sofa doing motherly things. Most of the time it just made me laugh! But seriously I don't watch these shows; they're simply not my cup of tea and I don't really like the idea of people dragging their personal lives out on national TV. Somethings should remain private or if "counselling" is necessary it should be done by people qualified to help not a baying audience and a presenter thinking about his ratings.

Going off on a tangent - Have you read Ben Elton's Blind Faith? It's written his own unique style but it throws up some questions about blogging/internet that are quite interesting. I think you'd enjoy the read. I might review it sometime on TVFH, it's a powerful book.

intrepidideas said...

Jane, I haven't read Blind Faith yet but I've heard about it. I'll add it to my list of books to read.... Thanks.