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TV TALK SHOWS BLUR DISTINCTION BETWEEN BIZARRE AND ORDINARY

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Oprah and Phil and all the rest of them are making us kind of crazy.

That's not exactly the clinical term the authors of a study of television talk shows would use, but their paper makes it hard not to come to that conclusion.Vicki Abt and Mel Seesholtz of Penn State University's Ogonitz Campus have published their conclusions in the Journal of Popular Culture.

They put it this way:

"Television talk shows create audiences by remaking cultural rules, by managed shocks, by shifting our concepts of what is acceptable, by transforming our ideas about what is possible, by undermining the bases for cultural judgment, by redefining deviance and appropriate reaction, by eroding social barriers, inhibitions and cultural distinctions."

The endless freak show of tattooed nuns, cross-dressing lumberjacks, assorted compulsives and victims of this and that obscure abuse breaks down useful distinctions between public and private behavior and between decorum and social incontinence.

And because no one and no act is finally too loopy or too disgusting to be indulged and accommodated - usually with some vague, show-ending pop psychology nostrum - sensible judgment is confused, if not defeated altogether.

A healthy live-and-let-live tolerance is debased into a disorientation that can't condemn the damnable or forbid cavorting room for private acts in the public forum. We are conditioned to believe everything and deplore nothing.

We seem to live, as Abt put it in an interview, in "a violent Disneyland of human relations" - one that leads us into paranoia and cynicism and finally wears us down into apathy.

Indeed, the talk shows themselves have gone that declining route.

Phil Donahue, who darn near invented the idiom, began by putting book- or movie-hustling celebrities together with workday audiences, often with a current-affairs slant premised on the then-novel idea that women at home had minds that could be engaged by more than soap opera bathos.

But Donahue followed his spawn into the bidding war in pathology, and here he is today, ringmaster in a degraded circus of exhibitionist basket cases.

When you add the body-bag journalism that has taken over local TV news everywhere, small wonder many Americans cower in their homes, afraid to venture much farther than to the closest grocery store or mall. (And that anxiously.)

The world - theirs, anyway - is full of menace, lapping at their lives like an acid tide. Life is a hubbub of killers, rapists, molesters and emotional predators.

In fact, most American life is safe and ordinary and even benign, but the commonplace has no champion. It can't have; it has no ratings to pay one.