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The daytime talk shows have the potential of erupting into a bigger scandal than the quiz shows of the 1950s.

What's happened up to now is scandalous enough, of course. A secret infatuation revealed on the "Jenny Jones" show led to murder. And a troupe of Toronto comic actors duped the producers of the "Jerry Springer" show.

After the quiz show scandal of 1958, the quiz and game shows cleaned up their acts. But today's genre of talk shows is a mess and is dragging all media down.

The show hosts-without the knowledge or training or without professional help at hand, encourage conflict and revelations and easily get in over their heads, not knowing how far to go-or how far they have gone. Often they seem to be practicing therapy without a license.

This kind of programming is irresponsible. Day after day, a parade of life's miseries and sordidness is dragged across the stage, each more shocking and reprehensible than the last. How low can they go before they begin to exhaust the stockpile of human degradation?

How easy it will be for the producers to suggest that "guests" exaggerate their already wretched stories and to come up with ever more bizarre confrontations.

The other week Montel Williams devoted a show to assessing whether a teen-age girl was, as her accusers insisted, a "slut." In weeks to come will we see shows making fun of people who have overcome stuttering or obesity or some other shameful secret?

As our sister publication Electronic Media stated in an editorial: "The message to talk show producers and syndicators: You'd better watch out. Daytime talk is about one half-step away from eliciting mass moral outrage, maybe even the kind that gets its voice from ministers and politicians."

How about ministers who are politicians? If Pat Robertson decides to run for president again, wouldn't the degradation of the daytime talk shows raise the ire of his constituents to a boil? And with all those potential Republican candidates wanting to curry favor with the Christian coalition, isn't the subject of the daytime talk shows likely to get a sympathetic ear?

The producers who say they're only giving people what they want are obfuscating on thin ice.

Enough is enough. There's nothing wrong with the daytime talk shows plumbing the depths of what ails us. But there's no reason they can't do it in a way that will actually help those poor souls, with counseling on the air and follow-up therapy. And wouldn't it make a great show to ask the people back and show how they've learned to cope with their lives?

Yes, the shows get great ratings, and it's easy for the show's producers, station lineup and advertisers to congratulate themselves on "giving people what they want." But couldn't they be induced to want something better? Or is that not any concern of ours?

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