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Regis Philbin: a broadcaster at heart

Among the last of a vanishing TV breed

There was some head-scratching in the mid-1990s when David Letterman hired Tom Snyder, as opposed to some hot young comic, to host CBS’ “Late Late Show.” Some wondered if Letterman feared positioning a potential replacement behind him, but he explained the decision by calling Snyder “a talented broadcaster,” as if that term said it all.

Regis Philbin — who is hanging up his daily morning spurs after Friday’s edition of “Live With Regis and Kelly” — also fits that description, which may be why he has long been a Letterman favorite, inasmuch as both are part of a disappearing breed.

Veteran latenight producer Peter Lassally summed up what constitutes a “broadcaster” in discussing Snyder after his death in 2007, calling his gift “a rare thing. When he was on the air, he made the camera disappear. It was just you and him, in a room together, having a talk.”

Although I confess to not regularly spending mornings with Philbin, he has demonstrated those qualities in spades on his long-running daytime show — which I tend to think of as “Live With Regis and (Fill in the Blank)” — as well as hosting “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Like Letterman, whose show is often at its best when the host sits at the desk riffing, Philbin can create television out of nothing. He’ll peruse an article in the newspaper, start talking about it, and you’re good for five minutes of perfectly entertaining TV.

It’s not a completely lost art, but a fast-fading one, especially with the emphasis on comedians in latenight. Even Jay Leno would be among the first to tell you he’s primarily a comic. By contrast, guys like Letterman, Philbin and Dick Cavett — who seems to be popping up everywhere these days, all over again — embody the ideal of somebody who doesn’t have to sing, dance or tell jokes to hold an audience’s attention.

Durability has become another hallmark of broadcasters, perhaps because they possess talents unlikely to slip out of fashion. That’s certainly been true of the 80-year-old Philbin, who has hosted his current show — first locally in New York, then nationally via syndication — for 28 years.

Another aspect of broadcasting involves knowing something about the audience. Nobody illustrated that better than Johnny Carson, who appeared to have a keen sense of what viewers could tolerate before drifting off to sleep.

“It’s the end of the day,” Carson once said of “The Tonight Show.” “People watching don’t want someone who looks like they’re going to have a nervous breakdown.”

As Philbin has inherently understood, people kind of enjoy easing into their day, too, even in a different, faster-paced era. Perhaps that’s why the attrition rate for daytime talk hosts through the years may exceed that for just about any other form of employment.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to believe that, back in 2000, people actually worried about Philbin being overworked when ABC expanded “Millionaire” to four nights a week. Insisting he had “the heart of a lion,” he was almost indignant at the suggestion.

“I’m looking around for something to do in the late afternoons!” he told me. “I’m itching to go back to work!”

As for the prospect of incorporating guest hosts, he yelled, “Who the hell would they get? Who could do it?”

Increasingly, who indeed.

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