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Top 10 Tabloid Talk Shows of the 1990s

From Morton Downey Jr to Jenny Jones, the rise and fall of trash TV


Daytime television viewers in the 1970s and 1980s were treated to hours and hours of melodramatic stories about infidelity, questionable paternity, sibling rivalry, murder, mayhem and the occasional Satanic cult. Those shows were called soap operas.

But as the 80s gave way to the 1990s, those shows began to fade in popularity. A new program genre was sweeping the nation - daytime talk shows. Tabloid talk shows, which featured stories about infidelity, questionable paternity, sibling rivalry, murder, mayhem and the occasional Satanic cult.

The controversial shows would peak in the late 90s, then quickly fade and disappear as controversy turned to legal battles and growing public sentiment that maybe - just maybe - some of the shows had crossed the line.

Here are the Top 10 most popular shows of that era:

1. The Morton Downey Jr Show

Talk show host Morton Downey Jr
Brenda Chase/Getty Images

For a show that only lasted three seasons, The Morton Downey Jr Show may have had the biggest impact on daytime tabloid talk shows. It's often considered the show that created the Trash TV genre. And the show was on late night!

The show featured outspoken and over-the-top, chain smoking host Morton Downey Jr. He regularly invited guests with opposing viewpoints to duke it out verbally on his show. And he would egg them on, to bring on the fight, by calling them names and blowing cigarette smoke in their faces. The show was so controversial, its distributor couldn't find stations that would agree to carry it.

2. Ricki Lake

Talk show host Ricki Lake
20th Century Fox

Ricki Lake's popularity hinged on its young host, Ricki Lake, who sought a younger audience than the competition - Generation X. Her idea hit a chord, and the young audience delivered a hit show. he show was rebroadcast in the United Kingdom, Australia and the Netherlands. It continues to run in reruns in some parts of the world, including South Africa and the Middle East.

The show remained popular until its cancellation. In fact, the show was renewed for the 2004 - 2005 season, but Lake chose not to the return to the series in order to spend more time with her family and to return to her first love, acting.

3. Geraldo

Journalist and Talk Show Host Geraldo Rivera
Donna Ward/Getty Images

If we agree that The Morton Downey Jr Show created the Trash TV genre in the late 1980s, then it's a toss-up as to who popularized the genre on daytime TV. Was it Jerry Springer? Or was it Geraldo Rivera?

Many would argue it was Geraldo. And like how the Jenny Jones murder trail signaled the end of the tabloid talk show era, it was "the fight" on Geraldo that signaled its beginning.

In 1988, Rivera invited a group of white supremacists, anti-racist skinheads, African-American activists and Jewish activists to come together on stage. In short order, the arguing turned to a physical confrontation. One that would include Rivera, who threw more than one punch before his nose was broken by a folding chair.

4. The Jerry Springer Show

Talk Show Host Jerry Springer salutes to fans.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

You can't really talk about tabloid talk shows without paying honor to the king of them all, The Jerry Springer Show. Crass, crude and ridiculously outrageous, Springer today is a mere shadow of what it once was. And the fact that the show soldiers on, even in this post-tabloid talk show world, is a testament to the way the show has evolved and adapted in the last two decades.

Host Jerry Springer turned a potential scandal - that his show was scripted and his guests rehearsed and encourage to fight and argue - into a format that kept it alive when all the other tabloid talk shows were dying and disappearing: Admit that it's all scripted (or at least coached) nonsense that's targeted for people who like spectacle and nonsense. In other words, plant tongue firmly in cheek and wink to the audience.

That wink and nod became hip and fun, and Springer survives today because of it.

5. The Sally Jesse Raphael Show

Talk Show Host Sally Jesse Raphael
Andy Kropa/Getty Images

The difference between The Sally Jesse Raphael Show and its daytime brethren was pretty simple - Sally Jesse Raphael was always in on the joke. Or so it seemed.

Turning a popular radio program into a high-rated daytime talk show was a great feat, and Raphael kept the show going for many years. By the time the show was cancelled, Raphael had scored legions of fans who were less interested in what she did on her show than who she was as a person and personality. Raphael retains that same popularity today.

6. The Phil Donahue Show

Talk show host Phil Donahue
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The longest running syndicated daytime talk show in history? You may think it's The Oprah Winfrey Show, but you'd be wrong. It's The Phil Donahue Show, or just Donahue, which ran for 29 years - 26 of them in national syndication.

It's tough to include Donahue on this list because, for the majority of its history, Donahue was a well-known and well-respected current affairs program. And it still is. But like most of the daytime talk shows in the 1990s, even Donahue dipped into the outrageous and melodramatic. Heck, even Oprah dove into those waters.

So consider Donahue the poster child for a great show gone bad - or at the very least, a good show that dabbled in the dark arts for a bit, before coming back to the good side.

7. The Montel Williams Show


The Montel Williams Show and its host, Montel Williams, were a bit of an enigma in the world of tabloid talk shows. Williams' show focused on uplifting and heartfelt stories when it began, an extension of the uplifting stories Williams was used to telling as a renowned speaker, encouraging young people to strive to achieve their highest potential. He toured the country and his success propelled him to television.

But to maintain ratings and stay on the air, Montel took the tabloid route, too. Eventually Williams would swing the show's pendulum back toward inspiring and uplifting stories - though his focus on new age spirituality and his friendship with physic Sylvia Browne made a lot of folks wonder what Williams was up to.

8. Maury

Getty Images

Maury and host Maury Povich have flown under the radar, for the most part, since The Maury Povich Show stopped being current affairs topical and turned "who's having an affair?" topical. Still airing new episodes today, Maury, along with Springer, is among the few survivors of the tabloid talk show era.

Like so many programs, Maury shifted from news to nutjobs to stay competitive. Though toned down somewhat, Maury's guests still come on set to chat about sexual infidelity, makeovers, obese children, unusual phobias, fortune telling and more. But Maury soon became known for its almost weekly paternity test episodes.

9. The Jenny Jones Show

Talk Show Host Jenny Jones.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Affable talk show personality Jenny Jones hosted the hour program. It differentiated itself from the competition by hosting musical guests, introducing audiences to such well-known talents as Ludacris, Nelly and Usher.

But the show might be best known for a dark turn in daytime television. During a program on secret crushes, a young homosexual man, Scott Amedure, confessed to his friend, Jonathan Schmitz, that he had a crush on him. Three days later, Amedure was found murdered and his friend, Schmitz, was considered the prime suspect. He was arrested and later found guilty of second-degree murder.

Many consider the trail the turning point in America's appetite for what was often called "Trash TV".

10. The Steve Wilkos Show

Talk show host Steve Wilkos
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Tabloid talk shows will never truly go away. It's a genre that works and that people want to watch. That's why the Springer spin-off, The Steve Wilkos Show, is doing well in the ratings and marches on as a tabloid talk show for the 21st Century.

The show's style comes out of Wilkos' personality and television character. He was known on Springer as the Head of Security. As Head of Security, he was tough on guests accused of certain crimes or being tough when guests got out of control.

Today, on his show, Wilkos is known for making certain guests stand while being interviewed, rather than sit in the chairs provided on the show's set. These guests are often accused of or have committed heinous crimes. Wilkos reasons that the guests didn't make their victims comfortable, so they shouldn't be comfortable on his show. And when a guest really outrages Wilkos, he will often toss the chairs across the set.

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