Screening Gender

Quality in Television Talk Shows

An Analytical Approach

The project "Screening Gender" (1997–2000) was co-financed by the Equal Opportunities Unit of the European Commission (DGV) and by the following broadcasters: YLE (Finland), NOS (Netherlands), NRK (Norway), SVT (Sweden), ZDF (Germany) and DR (Denmark – first year only).



Public Television and Public Quality

From Debate to Dialogue

Quality Dimensions in Talk Shows

Quality Standards for Public Television



The task of every public broadcaster is to represent the audience in all its diversity. In that sense, public broadcasting belongs to everyone and is aimed at everyone – young and old, women and men, members of all ethnic groups. To what extent is that goal realised in contemporary broadcasting practice? This question is fundamental to the project Screening Gender. Our comparative research study Who Speaks in Television? demonstrates that even today television programmes tend to portray gender roles and relationships along surprisingly traditional lines. Our Finnish case study Women Audiences and Gender Portrayal on TV shows that, in many women’s experience, current television content is primarily male-oriented and offers the female viewer relatively few opportunities for identification. The basic premise of Screening Gender is that when television is attuned to up-do-date ways of conceptualising gender, it results in more creative programmes that appeal to a broader audience spectrum.

The television talk show is generally regarded as a vehicle for airing public concerns, and for giving a voice to the audience. In this paper we outline a way of analysing talk shows along dimensions that highlight different sets of programme-making routines and values. These routines and values reflect two approaches to the audience – a traditional one, in which the viewer is conceived as an ’individual’ who witnesses a debate conducted by others; and a more innovative one, in which the viewer is regarded as a ‘citizen’ who is encouraged to feel part of a dialogue. For example, the ‘traditional’ approach prioritises rational detachment, competitive point-scoring and a ‘winner-loser’ outcome. The ‘innovative’ one privileges empathy, inclusivity and a ‘problem-solving’ outcome. From the perspective of Screening Gender, the latter approach seems likely to engage many women – and other audience groups – who do not readily identify with the traditional detached style and confrontational format typical of many programmes today. From the perspective of public service broadcasters, the approach offers a model for quality programme-making that reflects democratic values of diversity and equality.

This document is adapted from a longer report entitled ‘The Public Quality of Dutch Talkshows: A New Theoretical Model’. The report was commissioned by the NOS Gender Portrayal Department and was written by Irene Costera Meijer of the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCOR). The complete report can by obtained from the NOS Gender Portrayal Department.


Public broadcasting provides a vehicle for opinions, criticism and debate … The Netherlands is a multilayered, multicultural country with a rich diversity of worldview and lifestyles. This is mirrored by its public broadcasting system.

‘Publiek in de toekomst’, NOS, May 1998

How are we to evaluate public television for its "public quality" – its potential to involve as many people as possible in democracy and "good citizenship"? What standards are to be used? Content is important of course. But public quality in television pertains also to style, formats, and techniques.

A first major standard is directly related to equality and representation, meaning that the choices, experiences, stories and imaginary lives of all people are considered as equally "human" and as equally significant. One direct implication is that public television programmes should call on the democratic attitudes and views of all members of the audience, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, social class or cultural background.

Second, the essence of public quality is that public broadcasters should make it as easy as possible for their audiences to make sound and intelligent decisions about issues of public life, and about personal aspects of social concerns. It is their responsibility to inform citizens about all the issues involved in effective and responsible participation in a democratic culture.

If pubic broadcasting is not content simply to report the spectacular events of war and peace, struggle and violence, murder and death, employment and unemployment, but also aspires to discuss and elucidate the social context of these events and their relationship to people’s everyday lives, this has specific consequences for the selection of topics and their presentation in all programme genres. In this paper we focus on television talk shows.


The diagram below provides an example of two formats that can be traced in most talk shows. They reflect a classical dichotomy in journalistic values. The left column represents a relatively innovative model focusing on dialogue, a relational concept of individuality, and an acknowledgement of the significance of emotions and a "journalism of everyday life". The right column depicts a more conventional model geared toward debate, the Western classical idea of the individual as self-contained, and the prioritisation of reason and the public side of social issues.

Dialogue Debate

collaborative effort, two or more parties working toward mutual understanding oppositional stance, two parties seeking conflict and trying to disprove the other‘s views
aim is finding common ground aim is winning
looking for the other’s strengths looking for the other’s weaknesses
revealing and re-evaluating assumptions seeking to defend one’s assumptions as truth
making an effort in the awareness that the resourcefulness of others will sharpen one’s own insights making an effort to counter any criticism and have the last word
opening up opportunities for finding better solutions than the original ones defending one’s own solutions as only option, while discarding any alternative solutions
assuming that many people contribute part of the answer as a way to arrive at a workable solution there is only one correct answer and someone has it
real involvement and seeking to avoid offending or alienating the other person countering the other’s position without any regard for the other’s relations or feelings

Based on Study Circles Resource Center, Pomfret, Connecticut. See Doing Public Journalism by Arthur Charity; New York: Guilford Press (1995).


Taking this general model as a starting point, we can distinguish a variety of separate dimensions that could be used to describe the public quality of talkshows. In the following schematic depiction, these quality dimensions are arranged along a continuum. The concerns listed in the left column call on the social responsibility of citizens, whereas those in the right column suggest a certain alienation, isolation, or obfuscation of citizens.

Goal: common experience Goal: individual, unique experience
1. identification and discussion, social cohesion 1. fragmentation, complacency, feelings of superiority or of loneliness and isolation
Point of departure: sense of (democratic) involvement (of journalist and audience) Point of departure: detachment and non-commitment (of journalist and audience)
2. relational concept of self 2. autonomous sense of self
3. empathy 3. malicious delight
4. appropriate emotion 4. inappropriate emotion
5. respect 5. caricature, freak show
6. appropriate detachment 6. Inappropriate detachment
Journalistic routines: consciousness raising Journalistic routines: pleasing (fragmented presentation of information, over-dramatisation,exaggeration)
7. reliable, complete and accurate information 7. Propaganda or trivialisation, one-sided information
8. uncovering prejudices 8. Reproducing stereotypes
9. reducing complex issues to issues with clear options 9. Reproducing complexity, or reducing complexity by one-sided information
10. identifying core values of each position in debate 10. reducing positions in debate to clichés and slogans
11. listing pros and cons of options systematically and realistically 11. deception, patronising, simplification
Journalistic format: dialogue Journalistic format: debate and competition
12. directed to collaboration, problem solving 12. oriented toward winning and individual success
13. looking for strength of the other 13. looking for weaknessess in the other
14. clear and accessible information from experts and lay people 14. professional intimidation, jargon
15. taking people’s ordinary life seriously 15. ridiculing ordinary people, putting exceptional life centre-stage
16. horizontal interaction, taking into account feelings and sensibilities 16. vertical interaction or monologue
17. host acts like a role-model and intervenes or contextualises in cases of unacceptable claims or conduct 17. effect-driven, directed toward the situation and spectacle. Host takes no responsibility
Striving toward empowerment of the citizen Striving toward pleasing the audience
18. intellectual, moral and /or emotional to terms with the issue and being able to make a stable, responsible choice 18. Getting frustrated, cynical or coming swallowed by information


Our point of departure was the issue of ’public quality’ in television, which we approached from two perspectives – the need for quality standards, and the need for equality and diversity in programme content. These perspectives can be brought together in two inter-related questions. First, is it possible to formulate quality standards for public television programmes from the angle of democracy, diversity, and citizenship? Second, can a concern for fair and equal programme portrayal be integrated into an analytical approach that helps us to evaluate the ’public quality’ of talk shows?

Given these concerns, we can identify five major quality standards for talk shows. It is relevant to ask whether talk shows:


When addressing the issue of public quality in talk shows it is crucial to posit the existence of two basic styles of journalism: one that moves away from concerns for citizenship, diversity, and equality and one that explicitly seeks to foster such concerns. Given the growing reach and significance of talk shows, a better understanding (historical, cultural, and theoretical) of these styles as well as of the roles and views of all those involved (journalists, producers, broadcast directors, critics and viewers) seems urgently needed. Because, after all, it is hard to deny that in genuine democratic societies true quality coincides with public quality.