An Essay on Talk Show as a Part of the Public Sphere

Has the holy book not lament that the people will not believe except the gospel is preached to them? Has it not also said that people perish for lack of knowledge? Talk show should be classified as a part of public sphere and in discussing this one should note that there is hardly any piece of work which relates to talk show as a public sphere that does not lay emphasis on Habermas’s theory. Habermas said that the media shows blurring activities in the public sphere: as it is being trivialized with unimportant news, activities rather than serious political issues.

This was disputed by others who thought that even though talk shows did not meet Habermas’s criteria, it still contributes meaningfully to the public sphere through means of active public participation.

In this essay Habermas would be a central figure in the discussion and also other theorist whose academic literature discusses on pubic sphere would be considered. There would be vast discussion on the dimensions that make up the public sphere other academic and popular literature would be used, history, benefits of talk show, analysis of a talk show amongst others would also be discussed.

Tyra banks show and Oprah Winfrey show would be used as yard sticks to measure Habermas theory of rational critical public sphere. What then is talk show and what is public sphere. First let us examine talk show.

A talk show is a television or radio program were one person or group of people come together to discuss topics put forth by a talk show host.

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Some times, talk shows feature a panel of guests, usually consisting of a group of people who are learned or have great experience in relation to whatever issue is being discussed. (Wikipedia). It can be said to a forum where certain individuals are called upon by an initiator to deliberate over issue(s). The oxford advance learners dictionary defines talk show as a television or radio program in which a presenter introduces a particular topic which is then discuss by the audience.

The Museum of Broadcast Communication sees talk show as any “unscripted conversation directed to the audience. Talk show is therefore a show organized principally around talk. Certain points are common in all these definitions – the fact that talk show involves people, talking, audience, media, issues and host. Usually, talk show features a panel of guests consisting of people who are learned, relevant and experienced in relation to the topic on the show for that episode, at other times, a single guest is asked to discuss his work or area of expertise with the host. For instance, a gynecologist may be asked to speak on the issue of pregnancy and other related issues on the female human being or a lawyer having to speak on the issue of human rights.

Talk show can be regarded as a part of journalism which has evolved in a popular direction as its tentacles are spread across the different issues of societal concerns ranging from public affairs(politics) to entertainment There are several types of talk shows. Some are outlandish like the defunct ‘the Graham Newton Effect’ while others are traditional like the “Late Night Show” with David Letterman but the common ones now is the informal guest – host format in which the host welcomes celebrities or other talk worthy individuals in an informal discussion like ‘Kakaki Africa’ shown daily on AIT. The second most common form of talk show is the ‘Public Affair’ in which a host(s) interviews people in the news, shows of this format are ‘Good Morning America or Meet the People’ and Peoples Parliament shown daily on AIT. Others are issue oriented talk shows like Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake, Maury, Tyra Banks, Rachael Ray shows and many others.

First and foremost when we use the word ‘publics’ it is people who are not in the same families, communities, and clubs; people who are not the same as each other. As such, they are central to the functioning of modern societies. The term public sphere is a metaphor that we use to think about the way that information and ideas circulate in larger societies, it is used in everyday to describe information when it is made generally available to the public. When referring to the term it could also be seen as a forum or arena or aspect of political life where people come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems and through these discussions political decision may or may not be influenced.

Political sphere is a contrast to personal, domestic, individual or private issues; it bothers on any issue that occupies public space and interest. Public sphere is therefore formed around the dialogue surrounding issues rather than the identity of the population engaging in the discourse. Though public sphere is ignored in dictionaries, it is at the centre of any democratic society, it is therefore a discursive arena in which the talking populace converges to discuss matters of public interest and where possible reach a common judgment. The public sphere is seen as a theatre in modern society in which political participation is enacted through talking, a place where public opinion is formed; a bridge between the ruled and the rulers. Through the vehicle of opinion, public sphere puts the State in touch with the needs and aspirations of the society creating impression that the populace has a voice in the affair of the country.

How did talk show in public sphere begin? What is known as talk show in public sphere today can be traced back to history to the time when men began to exist having to deliberate on issues affecting their common interest. The term talk show was a relatively late invention coming into the media in the mid 1960s. Before then some spontaneous talks was common in broadcasting for instance, all radio program from 1927 – 1956 talk show of one kind or another made up 40 – 60% of the day time schedule comprising general variety, human participation and human interest. From 1973 – 1974, networking television filled over half of its day time program hours and 15 -20% of its evening schedule with talk shows of assorted types. By the summer of 1993, the television page of USA today had listed seventeen talk shows and from 1948 – 1993, over two hundred talk shows had appear on the air.

Talk shows as a part of public sphere has indeed pass through a lot of circles, to get to the present stage. The first circle starting from 1948 – 1952 and feature hosts like Authur Godfrey, Dare Garroway, and Edward B. Murrow. These were the pioneers of talk shows in public sphere. The second circle covers the period from 1952 – 1972 and features great hosts like Johnny Carson, Barbara Walters and Mike Wallace among others. These persons were linked to programs that became an established profit centre for their networks. The third circle was from 1970 – 1980. This was a boom period, a time that saw the birth of new technologies of production and cheaper television studio, new methods of distribution via satellite and cable transmission and regulatory decisions. Chief among the host of this period was Phil Donahue.

The fourth and last circle commonly referred to a “post network era” 1980 till date. Donahue’s success was emulated by others, the most notable being Oprah Winfrey whose popularity in talk show business has make her the most financially successful talk show host in TV. Others are Racheal Ray and Ricki Lake whose popular chips include issues on international conflict such as homosexuality and bisexuality. Taking us to the foreign scene, let us speak about how talk show began and evolved in Nigeria. Talk show as a part of public sphere in Nigeria can be dated back to the beginning of mass media. A major breakthrough of talk show in public sphere began in April 2000 with the birth of ‘New Dawn” with nearly one thousand shows. Top among the hosts of this period was Funmi Iyanda.

Today, it is on record that Bunmi’s television talk show grew to become a strong voice of the people, a beckon of hope and a brand with integrity. Bunmi’s show came to limelight when she featured an eight year old Senu Gonoda who suffered from a congenital hole in the heart – the effect of the show on the society was indeed overwhelming. People who are considered as the marginalized voice have used talk show as a means to reach out to high power (the government) to air their own opinion which in turn positively influenced the decision about the issue of concern. Talk show can thus be seen as a part of the public sphere because the media here has been used as a means of resolving an issue which was a problem of the society Are talk shows a part of the public sphere?

In the work of a German philosopher Jurgen Habermas (who is a central figure in this discussion) in his theory of public sphere (1964/1989) – he conceptualizes the public sphere as that realm of social life where the exchange of information and views of questions of common concern can take place so that public opinion can be formed. The public sphere ‘takes place’ when citizens exercising the rights of assembly association gather as public bodies to discuss issues of the day specifically those of political concern. Yet his concepts of public sphere insists on the analytic centrality of reasoned, critical discourse, it exists in the active reasoning of the public and it is in such discourse that public opinion is generated which in turn shapes the policies of the state and the development of society as a whole.

Public sphere is not of course a sphere; it is a metaphorical term that is used to describe the virtual space where people can interact. A place where people’s conversations, ideas and minds meet- that is public space. It is the place where information, ideas and debate circulate in society and where political opinion can be formed. Speaking in terms of interaction, there are three areas of analytic concern within the interaction dimension of the public sphere: discursive, spatial and communal. The discursive has to do with the nature of the talk which circulates, is the talk political, social and therapeutic? In the discussion of a particular topic there has to be unity and coherence in the questions, views and suggestion; spatial refers to the sites and settings of the social interaction.

Where do people meet? What factors foster of hinder their interaction in these spaces? The spatial is seldom separable form the discursive, both together serve to define contexts and occasions, for example, an emotional type of talk the atmosphere would be conducive enough, the people would be comfortably sited; the communal aspect has to do with the nature of the social bonds between citizens, there has to be oneness amongst the people, that is having similar opinions on a particular issue, people talk to each other and thus give each other a sense of how there are thinking. Thus, the term public sphere, there must be interaction to permit and foster the processes of sense-making. The talk show clearly fits into the description mentioned above; as interaction is the key element, the site or the show is clearly defined and different issues are discussed in the shows.

For public sphere theorist there are two dominant models of how such a sphere would operate to serve democratic ends. In Habermas’ view, the goal to be achieved would be an arena in which every voice was given equal access and all opinion would be heard and deliberated on, in ways that allowed for the development of public opinion. However, following a more Gramascian view how hegemonic norms- which are always unstable, dynamic and contested- develop, work through a process by various groups with varying agenda’s and view contest for a voice with an always negotiated, multifaceted and contradictory results.

There are some major themes which are pertinent in both academic literature and popular saying about the public sphere, these are; that the public sphere is too trivialized- consumers are more interested in unimportant information about celebrity, scandals rather than the more serious issues (public affairs); it is too commercialized- critics thought that through the commercialization of the public sphere, it began to represent public opinion rather than to provide a free forum for the emergence of public opinion and also the media do not care about the material in the public sphere, it focuses more on monetary value; it depends greatly on spectacle instead of ratio argumentation; it is too fragmented- and it has caused people to become apathetic about serious public issues- people no longer care about the important issues. But other critics have said the public sphere been trivialized is not entirely bad as it has paved way for feminist in public debates.

Habermas’s writing provides a vision of the ideal public sphere- a vision that is common both to academic and popular thinking. “the public sphere should ideally deal only with serious issues of real importance- only party politics and not celebrity issues, sport or entertainment. It should not be sensational, easily accessible or commercialized. It should refuse to dumb down to consumers and rather demand that they work harder to improve themselves. It should only engage in rational, logical arguments: not emotional or spectacular appeals. And it should be unified and different kinds of culture”. Despite the fact that Habermas stressed the standard that cuts out to be public sphere one should not forget the fact that talk shows also contribute immensely to public participation and expression.

It has also been conceived that talk show may be considered as a different form of public sphere. According to Livingstone and Lunt (1993), they suggested that talk shows are a candidate for oppositional public sphere, emphasizing the expression of interested point of view that give voice to participants’ perspectives and aiming at compromise rather than consensus. Habermas’s bourgeois theory is different for the oppositional public sphere, while Habermas’s theory centers on rational critical discussion in which in an argument other position should be considered, the oppositional public sphere just aims for negotiation compromise. The oppositional public sphere favors feminist theory and women, the female viewers love the chance to hear the voices of ordinary people speak on everyday life

Gerard Hauser proposed a different direction for the public sphere than previous models. He proposed that public spheres were formed around the dialogue surrounding issues, rather than the identity of the population that is engaging in the discourse. “Emphasizing the rhetorically of public spheres foregrounds their activity”. Rather than arguing for an all inclusive public sphere, or the analysis of tension between public spheres, he suggested that publics were formed by active members of society around issues. They are a group of interested individuals who engage in vernacular discourse about a specific issue. Publics may be repressed, distorted, or responsible, but any evaluation of their actual state requires that we inspect the rhetorical environment as well as the rhetorical act out of which they evolved, for these are the conditions that constitute their individual character.

These people formed rhetorical public spheres that were based in discourse, not necessarily orderly discourse but any interactions whereby the interested public engages each other. This interaction can take the form of institutional actors as well as the basic “street rhetoric” that “open[s] a dialogue between competing factions.” The spheres themselves formed around the issues that were being deliberated. The discussion itself would reproduce itself across the spectrum of interested publics “even though we lack personal acquaintance with all but a few of its participants and are seldom in contexts where we and they directly interact, we join these exchanges because they are discussing the same matters. In order to communicate within the public sphere, “those who enter any given arena must share a reference world for their discourse to produce awareness for shared interests and public opinions about them.

There are different genre of talk shows which can be divided into different spectrums; Public affairs format, conflict issue oriented (trash talk show) therapeutic format which centers on social problems in personal perspective. Most of the scholarly writings available labels talk show as trash television but it is worthy to note that one man’s trash is another man’s pot of gold, there is this conjured image of talk show as a place were demented individual with deviant behaviors scream at each other but this is not the case all the time as some have been seen to depict positive effects and enhances public participation which can be termed as public sphere.

Studies have shown that talk shows offer potential for ‘public sphering’ because it is one of the few spaces were ‘ordinary people’ engage in conversation on television or radio, creates awareness of certain issues that are rarely included in topics of other forms of public sphere. Leurdijk (2000) qualifies talk shows as a postmodern public platform for debate; she concludes that the talk shows offers opportunity for women and men of different background to get their own voices heard, in a framework that allows for more diversity than traditional news media do. In other words, talk shows should be seen not just in the light of it been a public sphere but as a way in which voice is given to those who would not ordinarily be heard (an ordinary citizen is given a microphone an has the opportunity to ask a top government official a question), it gives people the opportunity to express their opinion /views on issue of concern.

Talk show are more like a college of opinion, experiences and thru the sharing of individual experiences it allows not only new topics but different styles of talking about them. The restrictions of the bourgeois public sphere as discussed in the work of Habermas (1989) and his critics Calhorn (1992) are alleviated in favor of a more diverse spectrum of topics and styles considered appropriate for public concern and debate. Carpignano et al (1990) privilege the talk show as a new site within the public sphere which embodies strong democratic potentials. Amongst other things, they point to the fact that these programs are geared towards public debate using conversational discursive modes- they establish bonds of familiarity with television audience and the studio audience via its talk; also most times common sense prevails over expertise.

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An Essay on Talk Show as a Part of the Public Sphere. (2017, Dec 05). Retrieved from

An Essay on Talk Show as a Part of the Public Sphere
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