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Talk is cheap in the TV chatshow explosion

AT THE RISK OF SOUNDING like William Safire, I find myself increasingly dismayed by the trashing of certain basic words in our vocabulary. The word “talk,” for example, once described two or more people engaging in conversation. Then along came “talk radio,” and “talk” suddenly became synonymous with the act of shouting insults.

Now comes the proliferation of “talk TV,” and the word assumes even uglier resonances. “Talk” means Jerry Springer baiting cross-dressers. It means Howard Stern discoursing on penile enlargement. It means George and Alana inadvertently reminding us that Regis and Kathie Lee are really serious intellectuals — we just didn’t realize that at first.

There are almost two dozen alleged “talk” shows on network and syndicated TV this season, some of which have already opened to dim ratings. The only thing remarkable about this outpouring is that, with rare exceptions, no one is actually having a conversation. There are lots of grimaces, a few vivid gesticulations, maybe even a sprinkling of tab TV-style gossip — but at the risk of sounding dismissive, hardly anyone is actually talking about anything.

Talk suggests the act of exchanging opinion and information. George Hamilton and his ex-wife, Alana, would engage in that activity if they had any opinions or information at their disposal.

I ADMIT I AM BEING UNFAIR; I have had several conversations with George Hamilton over the years, during which he has offered up useful insights about suntan lotions and tonsorial restoration. He has held forth about Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection, since he was a frequent, if not incessant, visitor to the Marcoses manse in their glory days. George can tell jokes and has a great vampire act. A self-styled paramedic, George once even gave me a B-12 shot on an airplane when I made the mistake of admitting that I felt tired — feeling tired around George is unacceptable.

But if he emerges as the new dean of talk TV, the genre must be in serious trouble.

Sure, there are a very few people who actually try to converse on television. There’s Charlie Rose, earnest and well-prepared, against his sepulchral black backdrops, but he’s on PBS. There’s Charles Grodin, loopy and informed, but he’s on CNBC. Given the state of talk TV, they’re both probably just as glad to stay in those protective enclaves.

Their numbers may not be very impressive on PBS or CNBC, but at least it’s possible to sneak some marginally lucid guests into the lineup now and then.

ROSE TAKES HIS FRANCHISE VERY seriously and, not surprisingly, his shows are also very serious. Grodin, by contrast, sometimes talks like Chauncey Gardner who’s accidentally wandered into TV talk-land.

Grodin avoids pre-interviews on the grounds that it discourages spontaneity, but the other day he opened an interview with a somewhat weary-looking actress who was hustling a new TV series by asking: “Is this your 22nd interview today or your 23rd?”

“I guess I’m basically the appreciative type,” Grodin acknowledged, a trait that sets him apart from many of his brethren. “As a guest on many talkshows, I’m always amazed by those hosts who basically don’t want to listen to you — or to anyone else, for that matter.” The ubiquitous Larry King is a good listener, he notes, except that he has the attention span of your typical channel surfer — namely, none at all.

WHILE GRODIN’S AUDIENCE IS growing steadily, he nonetheless understands full well that “I’m talking to an extended family of no more than a million people, and that’s fine with me.” A major syndicator once asked him to do a show, but, as Grodin explains it, “It became clear that I would be expected to do jokes and maybe even interview animals.” Grodin doesn’t mind playing opposite a dog (e.g., “Beethoven”) but insists he won’t interview a pig — a reasonable position for a talkshow host.

Grodin loves doing his TV talkshow — indeed, he finds it downright comfortable. “The only time I’m uncomfortable is when I’m not on TV,” he says.

Watching Grodin, I can sense his “comfort factor”– he’s comfortable because he has something to say. So does Charlie Rose. Would that more TV talkers shared that propensity.

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