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Talking trash

Have you ever wondered what might possess someone to tell their spouse of a longtime affair on national television, or talk about cutting out their own breast implants before the camera's unblinking eye?

What happens when they're done? Do they just go home and live their lives again?

In another of its fine America Undercover documentary series, HBO explores those questions and many others, shining a bright light on the practices of many daytime talk shows in its hourlong program Talked to Death.

"These (guests) thought they were going to go off for a fun weekend and come back as hometown heroes," says John Peditto, producer of the HBO documentary, "but, if you look at some of these topics _ My Mom Slept With My Boyfriend or something _ after doing that they go home, and they're laughed at. There's an emotional fallout."

Of course, the genre's best-known moment of fallout came in the murder of Scott Amedure, a gay man who revealed a crush on a heterosexual friend on the Jenny Jones show only to be shot dead by the object of his affection, Jonathan Schmitz, a few days later.

Talked to Death shows an attorney for Schmitz, who contends that his client was careful to ask whether the person with a crush on him was male or female only to be given vague answers by Jenny Jones personnel.

Court testimony from the show's producers wasn't enough to keep Schmitz from a second-degree murder conviction but revealed much about how they can mislead guests into so-called "ambush interview" appearances.

Other issues uncovered during the show include interviews with a woman who refused to appear on The Charles Perez Show only to watch her sister do the program with an impostor, another woman who begged staffers at Montel Williams not to embarrass her only to be told on camera that her sister was sleeping with her boyfriend, and Laura Thorpe, who says she was "hoodwinked" into appearing on The Maury Povich Show when she had already agreed to do Sally Jesse Raphael.

"I went (to Maury Povich's of-fices) to say I was sorry I wouldn't be doing his show," says Thorpe, who once grew so fearful of health problems from her breast implants she cut them out of her body, "but his producers were like piranhas. They said, "Maury won't accept your apology unless you do the show.' "

To find these stories, Peditto and his fellow filmmakers simply looked at the lawsuits _ numbers of them _ filed by former guests against daytime talk shows for damages from embarrassment and more.

"(Some) guests settled their suits quietly and agreed not to talk," the producer says. "Most of this stuff has been kept out of the courts."

Fans may notice some of their favorite TV talkers don't appear much.

Phil Donahue, though quoted during the show's beginning, was about to retire when production started on the documentary.

Oprah Winfrey would appear only if the entire show was about her ("She doesn't think she's doing anything like them. . . and she's right," Peditto says).

In truth, Geraldo Rivera is the biggest name in daytime talk who agreed to an extensive interview, partly because Peditto knew him from previous documentary work.

"Geraldo is proud of what he does. . . (but) he understands that sometimes, during ratings periods, you sometimes have to do things you're not proud of," Peditto said.

Still, there are signs things are changing. Many of the genre's most notorious programs _ including The Richard Bey Show and The Charles Perez Show _ have been canceled, and the overriding ratings success of softer programs such as Oprah and The Rosie O'Donnell Show may indicate a change in tastes among viewers themselves.

"A program like this captures a moment of a television genre that went crazy for a while," Peditto says. "It's like a buyer beware notice. If you were thinking about being on a talk show, you oughta think twice after seeing this."

At a glance

Talked to Death airs

at 10:15 p.m. Tuesday3/25 on HBO.