Donahue, The Oprah Winfrey Show and Sally Jessy Raphael are grouped together here for a reason: They’re evolutions (or, more accurately, devolutions) of the same format. Phil Donahue pioneered the idea of the talk-show host freed from his desk: Donahue galvanized daytime viewers when its silver-haired host started running up and down the aisles, thrusting a microphone near the mouths of audience members with strong opinions about the guests Donahue was grilling.
Long, hot summer afternoons are ideal for catching up with the daytime shows. And 23 years on, Donahue is still the best at what he does. His questions are articulate and pointed, and although he does a good job of playing devil’s advocate in questioning people he’d normally agree with, he’s not afraid to expose his vaunted liberalism. He’s a daytime rarity: a host with real opinions and the brains to back them up.
Oprah Winfrey took Phil’s formula and literally ran with it — her daily hustle through the audience is more exercise than I get in a week. Where Donahue is a bit aloof, unafraid to disagree with folks in his audience, Winfrey tends to identify intensely with her studio crowd. She has a talent for gauging the emotional temperature in the room and adjusting her questions accordingly. The result is that Winfrey inspires fervent audience loyalty; she’s daytime’s most lovable (and highest-rated) host.
With Sally Jessy Raphael, the spirit is willing but the gray matter is weak. You get the feeling from her faintly superior air that Raphael might be asking dumb, obvious questions because she thinks that’s what her viewers would ask. The result is an atmosphere of condescension in a show that has nothing to be condescending about. She’s just exploring the usual topics: raising a child while you’re in prison, the psychology of Madonna fans, that sort of thing. And isn’t it time to get some new eyeglass frames to replace those cherry-red jobs, Sally?
The Oprah Winfrey Show: B
Sally Jessy Raphael: C