By Dexter Brown
Rewind takes a look back at controversy after controversy and the historic achievements of CTV’s talk show Shirley.
Shirley (CTV, 1989-1995) was a unique talk show considering the array of guests during its six season run. It featured psychics and non-celebrities like Elvis Presley Jr., while simultaneously attracting big name guests like Celine Dion and Jean Chretien. Often the show would have panels of six to 12 people answering audience questions.
It was an episode of that format that drew controversy. A guest of the March 30, 1994 show brought that particular episode to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. He complained it was biased in favour of euthanasia. Additionally the guest complained that he was told there was going to be four guests sharing the hour-long broadcast when in actuality there was nine. Furthermore, he was told by host Shirley Solomon herself not to mention that the show was taped and originating from Canada, as Americans were led to believe it was a program coming live from New York (although an NDP politician was a guest). This controversy may be one of the reasons for the show’s demise shortly after, even though the network and the CBSC found no fault with the episode in question.
Also worth noting is that in 1990 the show previously drew controversy and made headlines in the Toronto Star for rejecting a guest who was supposed to speak about the current economic climate because he wasn’t white. In December of that year the Star later quoted CTV as saying that the producer at fault was no longer with the network.
Despite the show’s controversy, Solomon did a fairly good job as host and looked confident and in control of her interviews. The graphics and set seemed firmly set in the 90s which in retrospect might seem cheesy but I’m sure at the time was just convention. Her studio was fairly large and distinctive considering that this was a Canadian television production. With all that behind her, you couldn’t be faulted for thinking that she was like Canada’s Oprah during the show’s run.
That may have helped sell the show in America. Those with a fairly good memory, however, would remember that in February of 1993, Shirley made headlines in newspapers across the country when it was learned that ABC had picked up the show and had planned to air it for a year. The show was supposed to start its ABC run on April 12, 1993 and to take the 11 am slot on the ABC network even though it was airing in the afternoon on CTV. But Shirley never did make it on ABC, as many affiliates resented airing the show. They felt there were far stronger talk show host who were already known to most Americans available in syndication, according to the Canadian Press. Despite not running the show, the network was reported to have had to pay CTV for the 200 episodes it was expected to run. Shirley was the first Canadian talk show sold to a US market, but that may have also brought its demise.
When Shirley finally made it to the US through syndication, Solomon grew uncomfortable as she now felt it was necessary to compete with the sensationalistic, raunchy and over-the-top talk shows that were growing to be hugely popular in America at the time. It was a catch-22 as Shirley also then grew to be at a size where it needed the audience and the exposure of the American market to stay afloat.
Solomon eventually turned away from her show after six seasons because she found it hard to compete with the sleazy talk shows of the time — which included the likes of the American sensations Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones — according to The Kingston Whig-Standard. She noted the episodes featuring men who were turned on by wearing diapers and another which featured naked people.
But the show also tackled serious political social issues like that of the Quebec referendum and free trade. CTV wanted to pull the show because they found it hard for Shirley to keep audiences interested and to tackle new issues, even though the show pulled in a decent audience of over 300,000 Canadians in its final season on the air.
Shirley was replaced by Homestyle, a show giving home improvement tips, according to the Hamilton Spectator.
Today, CTV’s current daytime talk show offering is The Marilyn Denis Show, a similar yet different beast than Shirley. Upon watching you could instantly tell it was a show aimed at the same demographic, but The Marilyn Denis Show is a much more modern, polished program. Its set feels more like a home, as opposed to Shirley’s which felt like a traditional 90s talk show set. The graphics are brighter, airier, cleaner, lighter and obviously more modern considering it was made about 20 years later.
The Marilyn Denis Show is divided into segments, each usually focusing on home decor, food, films, lifestyle or another on a celebrity of CTV or other Bell Media shows stopping by for cross promotion action. This bucked the one issue for a whole hour trend that Shirley had so often. As The Marilyn Denis Show was done in segments it would tease often for ones to come. This is something I assume was learned since Shirley as a tactic to keep viewers watching the show.
Marilyn is rather professional, as was Shirley Solomon, but she also often tries her best to be fun and quirky. A common example would be the seemingly endless clever ways she gets the audience to abruptly stop applauding when she walks onto the stage. If that’s too much to handle, beware, the guests of The Marilyn Denis Show are often as quirky as Marilyn is herself.
It seems CTV has learned a lot since Shirley, though The Marilyn Denis Show has not been sold overseas. The Marilyn Denis Show is considered live-to-tape, though it airs in various timeslots on CTV and CTV Two stations. The Marilyn Denis Show doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be American or try to be a large television spectacle as Shirley may have. It seems just comfortable reflecting the lives of Canadian women, catering directly to that market and not trying to be too big for itself. It didn’t seem to touch the crassness of Jerry Springer and the like and was rather fresh, fluffy and focused, in that regard. I felt that the grab bag of topics in The Marilyn Denis Show made it a bit difficult to go through — then again, I don’t think I quite fit their demographic.
Watch Celine Dion on Shirley in 1993 on YouTube.