It's 8:30 a.m., and 150-plus guests are shuffling through a metal detector and past several burly security guards poring through purses and handbags.
The guests are queuing up for the 9 a.m. taping of Dr. Laura Schlessinger's syndicated talk show at a special studio in a remote area of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. Today's episode (No. 12) is titled "When an Affair Is an Affair."
Broadcasting & Cable was given exclusive access to behind-the-scenes doings at Paramount Television Group's much anticipated and controversial talk show.
The radio personality whose daily syndicated show has more than 18 million listeners a week, is her usual outgoing self in front of the TV cameras. And because of her daily radio requirements, Schlessinger has been, since the beginning of August, taping episodes of her new TV show early in the morning and then hustling back to the radio studio some 10 miles away.
On this morning, Schlessinger walks out on to the stage wearing a black pantsuit, a purple turtleneck and a gold Star of David necklace. The setting is forum-like, with three banks of 50 seats in a semicircle facing the set. Schlessinger's stage has wood floors, dark wood paneling and a small table surrounded by bar-stool seats.
As she walks on to the set, Schlessinger greets a middle-aged couple who will be the show's first guests, then walks into the studio audience to chat with a handful of elderly women. She also has a short conference with the show's executive producer, Velma Cato, who is all smiles.
The audience is a mix of old and young, black, white and Latino. Many say they were bused in by an audience-staffing company and paid $6.50 an hour. That's common for syndicated talk shows, Paramount executives say.
Producers tell Schlessinger to take her spot in front of a camera, where she will do a "cold open." Schlessinger welcomes viewers to that day's episode and is off on a tear about different kinds of affairs. "Yeah, yeah; it's just lunch; it's just travel; it's just the Internet," she says into the camera. "You wanna know what I have to say to that: Bull." And that's how the show starts; it's not exactly Martha Stewart Living.
Schlessinger takes her seat next to the middle-aged couple and a videotape about cybersex rolls for about 30 seconds. "Unfortunately, this is becoming very common," she says as the videotape ends. But she stumbles on a few lines and yells, "I screwed up, let's do that again."
They get it right the next time, and Schlessinger asks the couple, Greg and Kim Levy, which one got hooked on cybersex. To the audience's surprise, Kim raises her hand and admits she moved to Florida to live with a man she met through the Internet. "It was awful, he lived in a one-bedroom apartment, didn't have a job," says Kim, who continued to outline the affair.
"Stop. I don't need all of those details," Schlessinger shouts. "What I want to know is, Greg, why did you take her back?" The segment ends with Schlessinger's handing out advice to the couple and warning them about the "slippery slope" they have started down. A number of top Paramount executives are on hand for the taping, including Paramount Domestic Television Co-President Joel Berman and some sales executives from the studio.
After a 10-minute break, the second segment starts with a videotape of President Clinton saying, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." The camera focuses on Schlessinger, who says, "That's the leader of the free world telling me that he can be trusted." A video of Clinton apologizing for his affair with Monica Lewinsky is shown, and Schlessinger jumps right in.
By the end of the hour show, five segments are taped, including one with a computer expert who designed software that allows people to monitor their spouses'
e-mails. During another segment, an African-American man tries to defend his late-night cybersex habits to his wife. After about two minutes of arguing, Schlessinger steps in: "I've certainly enjoyed watching this tennis match. But this causes pain, and when you vowed to cherish and love her in marriage, it doesn't matter what it is. If you are causing her pain, you are risking your marriage." Some audience members stand up and applaud as the segment ends.
At the beginning of most of the segments, videos are shown in which people on the street are asked what they think constitutes an affair. Schlessinger also reads a handful of e-mails, including one that details a new chastity belt that signals a spouse's mobile phone if the other is cheating.
Of note: When Schlessinger went into the audience to ask questions, on each occasion, the audience members and Schlessinger were prepped for that Q & A session.
Schlessinger ends the show with a two-minute monologue and advice on affairs. "We are all human here, all right," she starts. "And that means." For only the second time all morning, she stumbles on a line. "What we have here is a failure to communicate," she says. She then asks what movie that line is from. "Cool Hand Luke," the audience yells back.