The Talk Shows That Changed American Television
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because television breakthroughs come from unlikely places.
By Sean Braswell
- Talk show hosts Nat King Cole, Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey each altered the landscape of television in their own ways.
- The Carlos Watson Show debuts on Monday.
In recent months, events have come crashing through our front doors, shattering every notion we previously held about what we’re supposed to do and where we’re supposed to go from here. This is the new media landscape — the world is bursting with emotion and rebellion and the gloves are coming off. And now it’s time for a television show to rise to that moment.
The Carlos Watson Show is unscripted, unapologetic and unlike anything you’ve heard before. Coming hard on the heels of OZY’s commitment to Reset America, Watson, OZY’s co-founder and CEO, leads real and raw discussions about current events, history, and culture with interesting and impactful guests from across society and the political spectrum.
Here, in honor of the debut of The Carlos Watson Show on Aug. 3, 2020, we are celebrating some of the most transformational television talk shows in U.S. history.
The Unforgettable ‘Nat King Cole Show’
Perhaps no television show will ever be as barrier-shattering as The Nat King Cole Show. In 1956, the performer was at the peak of his powers with hit songs like “Mona Lisa,” but he had another goal: becoming the Jackie Robinson of television. “No Negro has a TV show,” he told Ebony magazine. “I’m breaking that down.” And he did, becoming the first Black man to host a nationally televised variety show in America in the fall of 1956 when The Nat King Cole Show premiered on Monday evenings on NBC.
The show did well in the ratings, but NBC struggled to find national sponsors because of fears that their products would be boycotted in the South. “Madison Avenue,” Cole later quipped, “is afraid of the dark.” The show lasted just 13 months but produced many memorable moments, including on one of the last shows when Cole — just two years after 14-year-old Emmett Till had been murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman — was joined by guest star Betty Hutton for an entertaining and groundbreaking musical duet.
The Revolutionary ‘Phil Donahue Show’
The first episode of The Phil Donahue Show, which debuted in November 1967 in Dayton, Ohio, had no announcer, no couch and no band. The audience thought they were coming for a different show. What they witnessed instead was the beginning of a television revolution as a 31-year-old local news reporter spoke with an atheist activist who was working to ban prayer from public schools.
From the start of the show’s 26-year run, Donahue pushed the envelope, sprinting around the studio, interviewing audience members and covering previously unheard-of topics from cross-dressing to interracial lesbian couples who have children by artificial insemination. “Before Oprah ruled,” says Carlos Watson, host of The Carlos Watson Show, “there was Phil Donahue, the provocative daytime talk show host who started new conversations instead of repeating the same old discussions.”
Case in point: this 1983 interview with three members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, who had just been forced to the ground in the middle of the street by armed police in Santa Barbara, California, who mistakenly believed they had robbed a jewelry store.
The Indomitable ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’
Just when Donahue had reached the pinnacle of daytime talk-show success, along came an upstart who stole his lunch, and millions of his viewers. Fresh off an Academy Award nomination for her screen debut in The Color Purple, Oprah Winfrey, a former local news anchor in Baltimore, launched her own daytime talk show in the fall of 1986.
It was clear from the very first minute of her first episode that Winfrey was something entirely different, and within two months, the show had passed Donahue in the Nielsen ratings. She would go on to to transform the entire talk show genre, focusing on self-improvement, intimate personal issues and connecting with her audience as no host had previously. When Winfrey beat out her nemesis Donahue for an Emmy in 1987, she thanked him from the stage; later the gracious Donahue approached her table, congratulated her and quietly said: “You deserve it, you deserve it, you deserve it.”