PHIL DONAHUE is the tremendously popular host of a daytime television talk show, one which often features unusual or controversial topics like abortion, bisexuality and reincarnation. To his viewers (and there are millions of them in over 200 cities), this 43 year-old celebrity appears an inherently decent man able to respect the viewpoints of his guests, no matter how bizarre they may seem. He also respects his audiences (overwhelmingly female) and gives them ample chance to express their opinions.
The reader of Donahue, My Own Story will want to know more about this Emmy-winning media marvel. What is he really like? How does he come up with ideas for shows and how are the shows put together? The first part of the book, Donahue's autobiography proper, addresses the first question with disarming honesty. The second section of the book attempts to answer the more technical question but never quite succeeds because other issues intrude.
"Little Philly" Donahue grew up in an Irish Catholic home in Cleveland. He was a product of Catholic education in the 1950s, respectful of his elders, unquestioning in his faith and accepting of authority.
Before his senior year at Notre Dame the ambitious young man started working at the local South Bend television station, and by graduation in 1957 he knew the direction his life was going to take. He married his college sweetheart, had five children in six years and joined the scramble for success that obsesses all young radio and television hopefuls.
He made it faster than most. By 1967 Donahue had his own television show on WLW-D in Dayton, Ohio. In those 10 years "Little Philly" grew up. He learned that he could challenge authority, that a local celebrity has power and that it feels good to be famous.
During the 1960s, however, the American dream fell apart and Donahue's life mirrored the changing social scene. He dared to challenge the Catholic church and finally lost faith in what had been one of the pillars of his life. His wife discovered women's lib and left him. The Phil Donahue Show did well locally but wouldn't catch on outside of Dayton.
But by the mid-70s America's mood had changed and the country was ready for Phil Donahue. In 1974 the show moved to Chicago, in 1977 it hit New York, and after that it was stardom all the way.
Donahue worked hard to get to the top and he made a lot of mistakes -- including the neglect of his wife and children -- but he is candid enough to admit them. In fact, the most appealing part of this man is his humanity, a quality that comes through in his simply told story.
Once past autobiographical details (among them his relationship with Marlo Thomas), the reader expects to learn something about the structure of Donahue . At this juncture the celebrity lets the members of his television "family" take over the narrative, which is why the book's authorship is attributed to Donahue & Co. His major staffers describe their jobs with anecdotes and reminiscences. This section proves that creating a consistently good television show requires group effort, and Donahue admits that his success is directly dependent on the talents of his associates. (To his credit, he also states that he will share the proceeds of the book with his staff.) But no one zeroes in on where the ideas come from. There is no overall description of how the pieces fit together, how a show is actually produced. The reader is left with only a sketchy outline and a hunger for more inside information.
Instead, the remaining chapters are used by Donahue to polemicize against the "bad guys" of the entertainment world: those journalists who think nothing of sticking a microphone into the face of an anguished accident victim, the flacks who will do anything to get a client's book mentioned on the air, the network "gatekeepers" who try to dictate what the public should or shouldn't see.
Fans will probably have little interest in these tirades, especially since their hero confesses that he has often been a bad guy himself -- as a young man, he callously interviewed the father of a drowned boy, while over half his shows still feature authors promoting their books. American viewers should be sophisticated enough to know and accept the fact that people often "sell out" to get ahead, and Donahue is no exception. Although he has tried to buck the system at times, he is clearly unwilling to give up fame for principles, so several chapters of criticism are rather excessive. In fact, it seems reasonable to assume that Donahue will soon be giving his new book exactly the kind of "media hype" he rails against, and his fans will certainly understand. Look for him on the other network talk shows in the weeks ahead.