The Missing Ingredient on TV: Spontaneity

The long-running CBS magazine-show ``60 Minutes'' has a spectacular record of high ratings. But they plunged when the program's resident humorist, Andy Rooney, was suspended last month over allegedly offensive comments made off the air. When Rooney returned this month, after a huge flap, the ratings went up again. A coincidence? Most viewers assume that ``60 Minutes'' owes its success not to Rooney's folksy commentaries, but to the hard-nosed investigations it's famous for. The fascinating thing about Rooney - and especially about the medium that made him - is not that he was off the air for a few weeks, but that he's been on for some 12 years - and that such viewer interest should surround an avuncular, middle-aged man who spends a few minutes a week reflecting on topics like paper clips and coat pockets.

The appeal of personalities like Rooney lies in the missing ingredient they add to a sleekly dehumanized medium. Call it emotional realism, or a whiff of true human nature, the fact is that Rooney conveys an unguarded quality, a sense of spontaneity and unpredictability sorely lacking in today's micromanaged medium.

His attitude forms a link in a vital chain of personalities - from Steve Allen to Jack Paar and a handful of others - who have triggered a special response in viewers. Watching these showmen, you get the feeling that something is actually happening on the tube - a reaction, an emotion, a wayward attitude. Individuals of this rare kind represent a precious commodity: the unpackaged personality, something unnerving to TV executives, who prefer every move to be predetermined. No matter how rehearsed or planned the actions of these performers actually are, they manage to impart a sense of idiosyncratic humanity on camera, an orneriness that burns through the electronic gloss.

One of these virtuosos of the unpredictable is former talk-show host Jack Paar. A suave raconteur and smooth interviewer, he was also capable of doing the totally unexpected, like flaring up - or crying. William F. Buckley Jr. once scornfully referred to Mr. Paar's penchant for ``weeping'' in public. Yet that is precisely why Paar was so popular. On his program you felt the chemistry of actual human interchange. He literally walked off the set once or twice over some dispute with management, leaving his hapless sidekick - the self-possessed Hugh Downs - to cope. However manipulative such antics may have been, Paar made viewers feel they were watching a real person.

In its own hyped-up way, the current series ``America's Funniest Home Videos'' is one of the few breaks in the tempo of total control typical of today's networks. The program recently startled the TV industry by topping a prime-time ratings period, luring viewers from gems like ``Cheers.'' Behind the scenes on ``Home Videos,'' batteries of screeners have to wade through thousands of tapes sent in by hopeful viewers - oh, cruel and unusual punishment! - to a cull a few usable minutes. Even so, the quality level of the series is already getting thin, requiring perky background music and ``Isn't this a scream?'' narration to remind you it's supposed to be down-home funny. But it satisfies at least one pang of this public hunger for the human element.

Meaningless excess doesn't fill the need. Morton Downey Jr.'s TV ``talk'' show ultimately failed, partly because people knew the ranting and screaming was just as far from emotional truth as an over-produced and neatly packaged product is. What people want is a man like Steve Allen, the national talk-show pioneer. On the live ``Tonight'' program - when he used to walk on camera, sit down, rub his hands, and look idly around - you realized he wasn't sure what he would do or say next. It was an electric moment. TV will have a place for people like this as long as viewers want to see how a human being really acts.

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