Fates and Fortunes

Did Oprah go too far for ratings?

9/24/2009 06:04:20 PM

Mac PhillipsWhen Mackenzie Phillips, star of 80s sitcom One Day at a Time and daughter of the Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips, spilled her guts on Oprah yesterday, two questions immediately came up:

1) Does this information really need to be made public?

2) Did Oprah do it for the ratings?

Simply put, the answers are no and yes.

But simple answers do not a blog make so let’s dig a little deeper.

I have learned via Twitter that others disagree with me, but my view is that if you were involved in a consensual sexual relationship with your father for ten years that’s an issue that definitely needs to be worked out, but ideally in the privacy of the therapist’s office. I am all for healing, but I do not agree that going on Oprah and The Today Show equals healing. Plenty of us manage to sort out our issues privately. Why should it be different for famous people?

Phillips is a self-avowed addict – she was just arrested last year for drug possession at LAX when she was en route to a One Day at a Time reunion on The (Harpo-produced) Rachael Ray Show. Phillips’ main addiction is drugs, but I believe addiction rears its head in many ways. So many celebrities – Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton – are often just addicted to attention, good or bad. Like drugs and incestuous sex, it’s not good for them, but they can’t give it up.

Phillips is not an uber-celebrity, but she obviously craves being in the spotlight enough that she wrote a memoir, went on tour to promote it, and ended up handing out exclusives to TV shows to get them and her big ratings.

The flip side of this equation is TV viewers’ addiction to celebrity news. The two go hand in hand: the masses want to know, and celebrities want to remain in the spotlight. Voila: TMZ is born.

Oprah is no TMZ, but she’s also not afraid to dip her toe into tabloid waters. She does it with enough class and depth that she avoids being called tabloid, but she can certainly go there. And is that so wrong? Tabloid subjects garner ratings and TV shows exist to get ratings, sell ads at high rates and make money. Oprah is perhaps the only person on television who has mastered the ability to take on almost any subject and leave her audience feeling warm, fuzzy and generally better about themselves when it’s all over. Oprah has a rare talent for talk – that’s why she’s been on the air for 22 years and is worth billions of dollars.

Oprah and her producers also know what audiences want to see. When Phillips’ publicists came to Oprah to see if she wanted the first exclusive interview with Phillips, why would Oprah say no? Any talk show host worth his or her salt would immediately jump at that opportunity. Let’s review: TV is about ratings. Scandalous revelations bring ratings. And Oprah conducts these sorts of interviews better than almost any body: no matter who she’s talking to, it’s like watching two best friends chat on the back porch over coffee.

So, whose fault is it that we now all have to know about Phillips’ sordid past? It’s ours. We have an appetite for this information, we feed these ratings, we encourage news programs and talk shows to chase these stories. We have set this standard.

Oprah – and TMZ, US Weekly, and even CNN — are all just giving us what we want. So, did Oprah go too far for ratings? Nope, she went just as far as we wanted her to.

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