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Talk Pioneers Resist Ambush Ploy

Talk TV has always raised eyebrows, but it once won kudos for its social contributions. In 1967, Phil Donahue broke into daytime television, shattering the prevailing norm that targeted women as homemakers in need of recipes and housecleaning tips. As a former newscaster, he shocked viewers with straight talk about bra burning, Vietnam War protests, and the disintegrating family.

''Donahue took women viewers seriously for the first time and engaged them in conversations that were personally relevant to them,'' says Nona Wilson, co-author of ''Tuning In Trouble, Talk TV's Destructive Impact on Our Mental Health'' (Jossey-Bass, 1995).

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For more than a decade, ''Donahue'' reigned supreme, earning Emmys and high ratings for raising taboo topics like incest, abortion, and homosexuality with a genuine intellectual curiosity and the showman's flair.

By the '80s, copycats abounded. But it took Oprah Winfrey to match, and eventually surpass, Donahue's hold on talk TV. Oprah brought intimacy and warmth, often holding guests' hands as they spilled out painful stories of abuse and exploitation. She has consistently said her goal is to uplift and empower people. She's even opened up herself, sharing with viewers her own painful background of sexual abuse and neglect.

''[Donahue and Oprah] have done an enormous service, bringing out the reality of our lives,'' says Tim Fisher, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International. ''But personally, I'm appalled by what's going on now.''

Mr. Donahue and Ms. Winfrey have shied away from the more bizarre, ambush tactics common to many shows. But it has taken a toll. While Oprah remains the nation's No. 1 talk show, her lead has slipped. Ratings for ''Donahue'' have dropped more precipitously.

Neither would talk about the Schmitz case. (See main story.) Donahue's spokesman says he has a policy of not commenting on his colleagues or the current state of talk TV. Winfrey's spokeswoman says she doesn't like to be ''lumped in'' with other talk-show hosts, since what she does is ''so different.''

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