Why Tell-All Interviews Make TV History
Oprah’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry was a massive TV moment.
The couple hadn’t spoken openly since stepping back from their royal duties, and their two-hour conversation with Oprah ended up talking about much more than just that.
Meghan opened up about her mental health and discussed at length some of her experiences of racism, which has led to wider conversations about both issues.
It was a classic example of what some people now see as a faded genre in TV – the big tell-all interview.
It’s a format that’s been around for decades, and when it’s done well – like with Meghan and Harry – it has the potential to be more than just a massive TV moment, but a massive moment in history too.
Historic Tell-Alls, Oprah And Friends
There are heaps of examples of historic tell-all interviews.
Princess Diana’s interview with the BBC in 1995 is the one that’s being brought up the most right now, but there are other examples outside of the British royal family.
In 2013, Oprah interviewed cyclist Lance Armstrong. In 1993, she spent time with Michael Jackson on his Neverland Ranch, and in 1977 former US President Nixon gave a series of interviews to David Frost.
In fact, the history of the tell-all format can be traced back over seventy years.
In 1953, an American war correspondent called Edward R Murrow started a new program with CBS called Person to Person.
It was an interview show with high-profile guests like Elizabeth Taylor, John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.
The show ran for nine seasons, and Murrow became a sort of pioneer for bringing the tell-all to the media landscape.
By the time the 90s came around, the TV industry as a whole was booming.
In 1992, Americans were watching roughly 7 hours of TV a day, and 71% of Australians watched TV daily.
That included dramas like Neighbours and A Country Practice, and game shows like The Wheel of Fortune and Family Feud.
But tell-all interviews were big TV events, and they really pulled in the numbers.
Oprah’s interview with Jackson drew a worldwide audience of 90 million people, and 23 million viewers tuned in to Princess Diana’s interview as it broadcast.
In fact, the tell-all format carries so much weight that some people think it has changed the entire trajectory of popular culture.
So, what is it about tell-all interviews that makes them so special? Well, there’s kind of a formula to what makes them popular.
The Tell-All Formula
Associate Professor Lauren Rosewarne (University of Melbourne): “The biggest factor about a tell-all is someone we haven’t had a lot of exposure to in this format.”
When Michael Jackson sat down with Oprah at Neverland, it was the first interview he’d given anyone in 14 years.
At the time, Neverland was a secret, hidden away place that no one really knew much about, and Michael Jackson himself was equally mysterious.
Before Nixon gave his interviews to David Frost, he’d spent three years completely withdrawn from public life after his presidency had ended. And before her BBC interview, Princess Diana had been under the royal family’s code of silence.
The more an interviewee is seen to have withheld from the public domain, the more compelling their story is.
Peak Public Interest
There was a lot of uncertainty around things like Michael Jackson’s skin colour, whether he’d had plastic surgery, and even the abuse he’d supposedly been subjected to by his father when he was a child.
In a similar way, no one knew the details of the doping allegations that surrounded Lance Armstrong, and Princess Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles had attracted rumours for years.
Ultimately, these landmark interviews are just opportunities for private high-profile people to clear the air on the things everyone’s been saying about them.
Michael Jackson spoke openly to Oprah about living with vitiligo and the relationship he had with his dad. Lance Armstrong admitted on air for the first time ever that he had doped to win all seven Tour De France titles.
And Princess Diana famously said this to Martin Bashir: “There were three of us in the marriage, so it was crowded.”
Oprah Knows, Authenticity Matters
That Princess Diana interview was 26 years ago now and these days it’s kind of rare for a massive audience to watch something in real time on TV, because: Netflix and HBO.
Celebrity feature documentaries have become a tool that high-profile people use to give us an insight into their lives. Social media obviously does that too, but both are carefully cultivated.
Months of planning go into these documentaries and celebrities often have a team of people that look after their socials. And in fact, overexposure of a celebrity can even make people care less about them.
LR: “There’d be no Kardashian interview that we’d feel incredibly excited to watch because we’re at saturation point with that family. There’s an element there of ‘we feel like we’ve known everything’ and then you know, it doesn’t make for as good television.”
Tell-all interviews work in a completely different way. One of the biggest drawing points of Murrow’s old 1950s and 60s Person to Person interviews was that the celebrities he interviewed spoke to him from their own homes. The show felt intimate. Sure, it was planned, but it didn’t feel staged.
Oprah creates a similar atmosphere in her interviews, and it’s a pattern that leans into the last part of the tell-all formula; people just being authentic.
Tell-all interviews feel far less orchestrated than celeb insights that come to us through any other channels.
And, best of all, most of them have a dramatic kind of ‘nothing is off limits’ vibe about them.
One of Oprah’s tag lines is that she never discusses a single question before sitting down with whoever she’s interviewing, which just makes us believe that she only ever wants to give us realness.
LR: “She creates a certain kind of atmosphere. You know how there is a style of interviewing where you’re wanting to give enough rope and you know, someone hangs themselves. She’s not that type of interviewer. She’s not combative, but yet she probes. And I think that’s also a reminder that the interview work plays a really big part in this.”
That authentic conversational style of a tell-all interview shows that despite fame, privacy, and drama, high profile people – even royals – are just people too.
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s big Oprah interview is a textbook example of the tell-all formula. Being part of the royal family forced them to stay silent while things like Meghan’s race were continuously talked about in the tabloids.
And the couple’s decision to withdraw from their royal duties gave them the opportunity to talk openly to Oprah about what the whole thing has been like for them. The interview pulled 17.1 million viewers on the night it aired in the US, and now it’s got people talking about really important issues, like systemic racism and mental health.
And regardless of what people think about Meghan and Harry after this interview, the fact that those conversations are now happening has surely got to be a good thing.