'Phil Donahue Show' Debuted 50 Years Ago

Nov 6, 2017

On this date in TV Kiese history 50 years ago: Dayton radio talk show host Phil Donahue revolutionized TV with the debut of the "Phil Donahue Show" live on Dayton's Channel 2 on Nov. 6, 1967.

Donahue created a new genre - the daytime TV talk show - discussing current news topics and controversies.

For the first time, viewers at home could call in and question a TV show guest, or participate in the discussion by phone.

Is the caller there?

"Donahue," as it was later called in national syndication, was launched by Don Dahlman, the manager of AVCO Broadcasting's WLWD-TV (now WDTN-TV), then a sister station to Cincinnati's WLWT-TV. "Donahue" was Dayton's local TV show, to complement Channel 5's "Paul Dixon Show" and "50-50 Club."

"Hearing a radio show reporter and interviewer in Dayton, Ohio, Don was struck with an idea that would change the course of television," according to Dahlman's 2016 obituary.

"On November 6, 1967, the television talk show, that would become the template for all others, aired for the first time on WLWD. On live TV with the at home audience able to call in, Phil Donahue interviewed an atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, in Dayton, Ohio. Callers heatedly dialed in during that (first) hour of television and jammed the southwestern Ohio telephone system. This was the hour that all involved knew that they had something very special."

Donahue, a Cleveland native, hosted WHIO-AM's "Conversation Piece" show before joining Dayton's Channel 2. His TV show went national in 1970, moved to Chicago's WGN-TV in 1974, and then to NBC's Rockefeller Plaza's Studio 8-G in 1985. The final show was broadcast almost thirty years later in 1996, when the daytime airwaves were filled with Oprah Winfrey, Jenny Jones, Sally Jessy Raphael, Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera, Rosie O'Donnell and others.  (Oprah's show didn't premiere until 1986.)

On TV, Donahue aired a mix of interviews – from Johnny Carson, Pete Rose and Ronald Reagan to Nelson Mandela and Jane Fonda – with tough topics like women's rights, homosexuality, misdeeds of the Catholic Church and atheism.

"Donahue" won eight Daytime Emmys for outstanding talk show host (1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1989, 1993 and 1996).

Donahue turns 82 on Dec. 21. In 1980, he married actress Marlo Thomas, daughter of Danny Thomas, the late entertainer and TV sitcom star.