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The highs and lows of talk shows // TRASHY TV

On the same day a man was arrested after admitting on Sally Jessy Raphael that he fathered a child with a 14-year-old girl, the talk show's topic was fat transvestites.

Time marches on at the TV talk shows, despite a lot of finger-pointing and Jenny Jones' hands-off testimony in the case of a murder that was sparked by her show on gay crushes.

Syndicated gabfests aren't quite the trapeze artists of trash that they were a year ago, but Jones still found time in recent weeks for a show about moms having affairs with their daughters' boyfriends.

The latest addition to the genre's rap sheet came when Carl Carlson, a 20-year-old Dover, N.H., man, was arrested Wednesday after admitting on Sally's show that he fathered a 14-year-old girl's baby.

The girl's mother gave police a video of the show. The legal age of consent in New Hampshire is 16.

The arrest came on the same day as the sentencing for a man convicted of shooting a gay admirer who revealed his crush on The Jenny Jones Show. That slaying, together with culture czar Bill Bennett's criticisms, put raunchy talk shows on the defensive.

Some shows fell by the wayside _ remember Danny Bonaduce? Tempestt Bledsoe? _ while some others were toned down.

"The ones that remained softened their programs, but not to the point of being Pablum," said Richard Kurlander, vice president for Petry Television, a media buying firm.

That means more shows about helping a child's dream come true or beauty makeovers.

"I think we're running out of categories of whom to makeover," said Bill Carroll of Katz Television, a company that advises stations on programs to buy.

Executives at Procter & Gamble, which has a $7-billion advertising and marketing budget and last year pulled advertising from some talk shows like Jerry Springer, have said they have noticed a change.

Yet experts credit the market, not the criticism: Too many shows were vying for the same audience. Advertisers may be queasy about programs, but most will climb on for the ride if the ratings are there, Carroll said.

Certainly the marketplace hasn't punished Jones, Raphael or Springer. Analysts say ratings for these shows are either up or steady, and they face no defections of stations unwilling to air them.

Meanwhile, Geraldo Rivera _ who made a big point of cleaning up his show earlier this year in response to Bennett's criticisms _ is "a big loser" in ratings, Kurlander said.

This year's talk show phenomenon is Rosie O'Donnell's show, which owes much more to Merv Griffin than Jenny Jones. And Oprah Winfrey has taken the high road to further heights, with her new on-air book club.

Furthermore, Carroll said the syndicated shows being shopped around for next year are softer: Martha Stewart is expanding her how-to empire, country singer Naomi Judd is promising a show that "touches the heart" and Oprah chum Gayle King is expected to produce a lighter version of her hero's show.

Yet Jones and her ilk aren't going anywhere. Sally's show on Thursday featured cheating women begging for another chance. And a recent Jenny topic: women who let their lovers have affairs when they were pregnant.

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