A pioneer of the television talk show, Phil Donahue was the host of "The Phil Donahue Show" (WLWD/syndicated, 1967-1996), which paved the way for the tide of afternoon chat programs that followed in its wake while also establishing a thoughtful, informative tone that many of them eschewed in favor of verbal fireworks. Donahue's screen persona - passionate, deeply liberal and sympathetic - made him a favorite among like-minded viewers, especially women, and a target for conservative figures. Donahue's fascination with stories from both high and low roads helped to fashion the modern talk show in all its permutations, from feel-good chats and news-driven roundtables to trashy exposes of sordid lives before the camera. In doing so, Phil Donahue was among the most important media figures of the late 20th century.
Phillip John Donahue was born into a middle-clash Irish family in Cleveland, OH on Dec. 21, 1935. His parents were both retail workers who sent their son to a variety of Catholic educational institutions, including St. Edward High School in Lakewood and the University of Notre Dame. His on-air debut came while he was working as a production assistant at Cleveland's KYW radio when the regular announcer failed to show up for work. Donahue stepped in and was captivated by the idea that his voice was being transmitted to a listening audience. Shortly after graduation, he landed the news director position at WABJ in Adrian, MI, which gave him invaluable experience as a reporter. This led to stints as a stringer for the "CBS Evening News" (1963- ) and later, the morning news anchor at WHIO-TV in Dayton, OH. While there, he launched his first talk show with "Conversation Piece," an afternoon phone-in program from 1963 to 1967. There, he put his liberal focus on full display by interviewing civil rights activists like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and his televised talks with such controversial figures as Jimmy Hoffa and Billie Sol Estes were picked up for national re-broadcast.
In 1967, Donahue left WHIO and took his talk show, now called "The Phil Donahue Show," to WLWD-TV in Dayton. His first guest was noted atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, which was soon followed by footage of a woman giving birth, a phone-in vote to determine if an anatomically correct male doll toy was morally offensive, and the inner workings of the funeral business. Such topics quickly boosted the profile of "The Phil Donahue Show," and the program was picked up for national syndication in 1972. Though such topics would, at first blush, align him with later shock-oriented programs like those featuring Morton Downey, Jr. or Geraldo Rivera, Donahue devoted considerable airtime to serious issues, with a special focus on women's issues. Shows covered topics like abortion, tubal ligation and featured conversations with pioneering sex researchers Masters and Johnson, which earned him a sizable female audience, as well as status as a figurehead for the "sensitive man" movement of the 1970s. Though certain broadcasters refused to air episodes of Donahue's show that they found too adult for their audience's tastes, the quality of his program and the maturity of his coverage made him a national phenomenon. In 1974, he moved the show to Chicago, where it was taped at WGN. Three years later, he and his program won the first of 19 eventual Daytime Emmys.
Other networks and syndicates observed Donahue's rise carefully, and by the dawn of the 1980s, there was a host of similar talk shows elbowing for space on the daytime airwaves. "Donahue," as the show eventually became known, carved out its niche by maintaining a balance between integrity and showmanship. Where other shows focused on the salacious and the voyeuristic, Donahue divided his attention between political and social issues like the AIDS crises and the savings and loan debacle of the 1980s and more titillating topics. The dichotomy maintained his core audience, as well as critical respect. Around this time, Donahue had as a guest on his program, actress Marlo Thomas, daughter of Danny Thomas. The two openly flirted on-camera during the course of the interview. By 1980, they were married and enjoying one of the more stable celebrity marriages in the business. During this period, Donahue also contributed to "Today" (NBC, 1952- ) and co-hosted a weekly roundtable discussion program called "Pozner/Donahue" (CNBC, 1991-94) with Soviet journalist Vladimir Pozner.
In 1992, Donahue celebrated his 25th anniversary with a special produced at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York. A host of fellow talk show hosts paid tribute to him on the special; ironically, several of them, like Oprah Winfrey, who had established herself in Donahue's former home turf of Chicago, and Sally Jessy Raphael, were trouncing him in the ratings at that time. The talk show circuit itself had become over-saturated, and Donahue's political views, which included open criticism of the early 1990s Gulf War, had earned him diminished ratings and banishment from several stations. Among those programmers who removed "Donahue" from their time slots was WNBC in New York, who owned the show's studio. He was eventually forced to find a new home in Manhattan, but by 1996, Donahue's program was a shadow of its former self in the ratings. On May 2, 1996, he brought the show to a close with considerable fanfare. Its 29 year-run, comprised of some 7,000 episodes, represented the longest continuous run of any syndicated talk show in American history.
In July 2002, Donahue returned to the airwaves with another eponymous program, this time for cable programmer MSNBC, which was designed as a liberal alternative to "The O'Reilly Factor" (Fox, 1996- ). The show was heavily promoted by its network, and debuted to high numbers, but after three weeks, its ratings had plunged. Despite being the network's highest rated program, "Donahue" was canceled on February 25, 2003. Its demise was eventually credited to an internal NBC memo that described Donahue's liberal stance as "difficult" for NBC to embrace during the tidal wave of conservative breast-beating in the early days of the Iraq War. Donahue kept a low profile in subsequent years until 2007, when he served as executive producer and co-director on the documentary "Body of War." The film, which followed an Iraq War veteran as he learned to adjust to life in a wheelchair after being injured in combat, earned top honors from the National Board of Review, and was on the shortlist for the 2007 documentary Oscar. In 2010, he appeared alongside Raphael, Rivera, Ricki Lake and Montel Williams on an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" (ABC, 1986-2011).