Talk Shows Take Over

Popular and cheap to produce, they dominate fall syndicated market

MONEY talks - loudly and convincingly - on television, which is a good reason why talk shows are proliferating like mushrooms in the night.

Right now, at least 40 talk shows - some new, some long-established - are either on the air or scheduled for the fall season. Most of them are syndicated to the stations, rather than carried by the networks, and all of them have two qualities in common.

Audiences seem to like the combination of chat, comedy, and soul-searching, along with the exploration of relationships and human aberrations, which the talk-show hosts dish up and against which the viewer can measure his or her reaction.

Equally important, in TV terms: Talk is cheap. It's a lot less costly to invite an audience and have a host interview celebrities than to bankroll a sitcom or a drama series. Broadcasters, with an eye to maximizing profits, thrive on that satisfying equation - low-cost programming with obvious audience appeal.

The extent to which talk shows are multiplying on the air became clear at the recent NATPE (National Association of Television Program Executives) convention here, which drew more than 10,000 broadcasters, producers, and syndicators from both the United States and abroad.

The most glamorous and sought-after celebrity visitors at the convention were the men and women who run the syndicated talk shows, and it quickly became clear that chat programs would dominate the air this fall. In fact, they already do.

Oprah Winfrey and Donahue lead the pack, followed by Arsenio Hall, Larry King, Maury Povich, the ultra-conservative Rush Limbaugh, wise-cracking Joan Rivers, Sally Jesse Raphael, Regis and Kathy Lee, and others.

But the talk-show stage is rapidly acquiring new actors. Essentially, they find it difficult to cut a distinctly different pattern, but some are potentially more exciting simply because they just don't quite fit the mold.

At the same time, as competition rises, the newcomers are at least aiming for a different style and more controversial topics because, in the nature of things, they find it hard to attract the top guest names who automatically gravitate to the top-rated shows.

The new talk-show hosts range from the youthful and inexperienced to men and women with news and show-business savvy. Bouncy Bertice Berry exudes charm and vitality and is convinced that she's going to hit the top.

"What you need is a real focus, not a lot of different stories," she says. "I just want to have fun, be a good listener, and tackle topics that interest the average American."

The pixyish Ms. Berry comes from Wilmington, Del., originally wanted to become a sociologist, turned to nightclub comedy, and then discovered her ambition to make it as a talk-show host.

By contrast, the glamorous Vicki Lawrence prefers to focus on show-business people. "I am a performer myself, and they feel comfortable with me," she says.

Another new face on the talk-show circuit is Jerry Springer, a popular news anchor at WLWT in Cincinnati, whose producer says his appeal lies in his "vulnerability and compassion." Springer intends to continue to read the news despite his new avocation.

In a very different league is Les Brown, whose "Les Brown Show" launches in the fall. He is a motivational speaker, a tall, handsome man with a booming voice and a knack for making the audience "feel positive."

There is a quite different appeal to Montel Williams, a former Naval intelligence officer, a serious man with a serious approach and an experienced and galvanizing way of addressing his audience. He periodically tests the audience's intelligence.

That isn't always a plus. The program director of a station in Ohio made it clear that his viewers aren't into the "heavy stuff." "They expect their talk-show hosts to be likable, discreet, and funny," he said. "There are certain unwritten rules by which a talk show must be run. They have a lot to do with the success or failure of a program. The formula that exists now basically works. Why would anyone want to change it?"

Probably the most original choice for a talk-show host is the extrovert Whoopi Goldberg who, from "The Color Purple" to "Sister Act," has earned herself a loyal and enthusiastic following.

At NATPE, the station operators felt that she stood a very good chance of climbing the ratings mountain rapidly and staying there. In practical terms, that means that some 75 percent of the major markets must accept her program.

Still another new talk-show face (since last year) is the vivacious Jane Whitney, and her latest competition is Bob Costas, the sportscaster who hosts NBC's "Later ... With Bob Costas."

Add Charlie Rose, the excellent PBS interviewer, tennis star Chris Evert, comedian Chevy Chase, the cheerful Jenny Jones, Sonya Friedman, Christina, Dennis Miller, and a host of others, and it becomes clear that the talk-show door is wide open, though among the many voices it's hard to find more than a few willing to tackle serious issues of political, economic, or international importance.

NATPE this year attracted a record number of international broadcasters, some trying to sell their shows to US stations, others eager to buy whatever new American product might be available. Many came away disappointed, partly because US television maintains a firm barrier against programs from abroad, and partly because there was little to choose from.

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