As this book evolved we realized that we had a double purpose: to explore the history of American ''talk shows'' but also something broader, to develop a taxonomy of television ''fresh talk.'' Sociologist Erving Goffman applied the term ''fresh talk'' to talk that seems spontaneous but may in fact be quite planned or staged.1 The term turned out to be very appropriate for the kinds of talk we were examining.
We felt that a taxonomy of television talk could be helpful to both scholars and ordinary viewers trying to understand television as more than the ''one great, blooming, buzzing confusion'' it often seems to be.2 Classifying, as rhetorician James Kinneavy once said, is the beginning of theory.3 And a taxonomy of television talk that can classify it into a unified system, we felt, would help people studying the genre. It would aid those trying to understand the medium to perceive the range of talk on television as part of a larger system conditioned by production practices and industry standards and shaped by economic and political as well as cultural constraints.
We make no judgments as to the ''worth'' of any of the kinds of television talk listed here. This talk is produced within a medium that is oligarchic—so much of it being controlled by major economic ''players'' and business interests. But it is also a democratic medium in one fundamental sense. Each of us is free to critique and evaluate television for what it does and does not bring into our lives. Viewers are free to satirize or lambaste television, even to turn it off. In other words, we see our mission as not only organizing what appears at present to be a hodgepodge of television talk into an organized whole, but also ex tending democratic discussion of the medium, something that becomes increasingly important as television wields growing economic and cultural power.
We found as we continued our work that the job we set ourselves was harder than we had thought it would be—that even what seemed at first a rather simple distinction, the line between spontaneous and scripted speech, was not so simple to draw in practice. We knew that comedians who appeared on talk shows wanted us to believe that their jokes had been created in the moment, spun out on the air. We knew, however, that in most cases, the comedian had worked hard and long in preparing those jokes—and had practiced them assiduously. Comedian Jay Leno was known as the ''hardest-working man in show business'' for the care he put into writing and practicing his casual-sounding routines. His ''topical'' jokes were always well rehearsed. And in this book we show how well rehearsed and carefully constructed were the premises of Letterman's ''spontaneous'' bits on his NBC show in the early and mid-1980s.
To draw the lines that separate the various forms of television fresh talk it seemed necessary to develop a taxonomy of television talk. We wanted to view television talk outside the traditional boxes of ''talk show,'' ''panel'' or ''cooking show'' that separate one form of talk from another. We were taking a more unified approach to talk on television, so it would be necessary to develop a more unified way of organizing and classifying the traditional forms.
In the pages that follow we develop a series of terms that categorize all shows whose central interest is their talk, and we present a preliminary taxonomy of not just what are commonly referred to as ''talk shows,'' but all television talk. We are well aware that because of the complexities involved in drawing lines between types and families of talk on television, along with the constantly changing character of the talk that occurs on the air, the categories we propose will be inexact at best. However, we hope to be as comprehensive in our taxonomy as is possible at the time the book appears.
First, we distinguish by their general purposes three broad subgenres of TV talk: news talk, entertainment talk, and socially situated talk. We believe that almost all television talk can be placed under one or another of these three headings. Though the narrative history of this book focuses on news and entertainment talk, socially situated talk, represented more broadly in the Guide, has its own fascination as an intersection of speech, social ritual, and television technology.
Although there are clearly many hybrids and blends, these broad subgenres have, at their roots, three separate aims: to provide information, to entertain, or to represent through various television formulas an array of social communication experiences—for example, legal proceedings, reunions, demonstrations of expertise and skills (such as cooking or home building), and competitive games of all kinds.
We can identify a TV talk show along a number of different lines. First, we classify shows by the rhetorical strategies or modes they employ. A monologue, talk from a single speaker who speaks directly to a studio audience or a viewing audience at home, is different from the talk that occurs among members of a panel or the kind of one-on-one dialogue that occurs in host-guest interviews. Here again, a blend or mixture of rhetorical modes characterizes most talk shows. A monologue begins a late-night entertainment show, but the monologue itself may be interrupted by banter between the host and the host's sidekick or band. Then the show shifts into the interview format that anchors most of the show, although the interviews are broken up by comedy skits, variety performances, sales pitches, and, of course, lead-ins to commercials and station breaks. One of the most important skills of a television talk-show host is the ability to shift modes, to execute one or more rhetorical modes in rapid succession. Johnny Carson's well-known comic grimaces, Joan Rivers' chatty asides, Jay Leno's winks, and David Letterman's playful encounters with the camera were trademark gestures of these hosts. Each established his or her own personal relationship to the viewing audience.
When rhetorical modes are organized into a particular structure or pattern for a show, they become a format: a hosted variety show, a panel discussion, an interview show, a satirical show, an instructional monologue. The rhetorical modes employed and the format of a show are influenced by the time of day the show airs. The industry's traditional day parts are early morning, daytime, evening prime time, and late-night fringe time. Formats are also influenced by the demographics of those who watch the show (women, men, couples, children, members of various ethnic groups). Most importantly, each host leaves his or her personal stamp on the rhetorical modes employed in a show. It is the host who establishes the tone and pacing of the show. For example, within the monologue format, a suave European on The Continental spoke alluringly through the screen to a largely female audience in the 1950s. This host established an entirely different ambience from the polemical monologue format of Rush Limbaugh or, to take another extreme, the mellifluous gentle tones of Mister Rogers as he spoke to his younger audience. Two hosts working within the same format (Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey, for example) may establish quite different tones.
We now have a series of parameters by which we can define a television talk show: the general aim or purpose of the show, the rhetorical modes it uses, the format which puts the modes together in a particular show, the time of day (still important, though now affected by video recording and ''time shifting''), audience demographics, and the tone established by each host or team of hosts.
We found that in many shows the interview was the most important rhetorical mode, establishing a backbone structure for many of the news and entertainment shows we examined. Interview technique varied widely though. Sometimes interviews were technologically mediated. When Edward R. Murrow spoke on Person to Person to interviewees who existed merely on a screen in front of him, the interviews took on a somewhat genial, ''removed'' quality. Ted Koppel established a cerebral distance using a modernized version of this technological mediation. Barbara Walters specialized in relaxed modes of personal revelation by physically entering the domestic space of her interviewees. And Mike Wallace established an unusual form of third-degree intimacy within the stark glare of the studio ''key'' light on his early Night Beat. Some of his interviews verged on acts of aggression, the hunter pursuing his prey. The art of the interview was, in the cases mentioned above, central to the art of the show.
Some hosts shifted their on-air persona radically when they changed formats. In his earlier entertainment persona, Mike Wallace engaged in witty verbal repartee with his wife, Buff Cobb, as part of their early-morning talk show on CBS, Two Sleepy People. (Later, shows like Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee or its twenty-first-century version, Live! with Regis and Kelly, would extend and institutionalize this tradition of early-morning couples' banter.) However, in his news-related shows, Night Beat and 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace developed a much harder, more intense, confrontational persona. Other hosts (Koppel, Carson, and Letterman, for example) were noted for the constancy of their host persona and tone over time, remaining with the same program categories that first brought them to national attention and instituting few changes in rhetorical mode and format.
Formats go in and out of style, just as hosts do. In the first decades of American broadcast television the panel show was the domi nant form of TV talk. A group of celebrities would get together as a panel, using some sort of game or contest as a rationale for their witty conversation. What's My Line? and I've Got a Secret were two of the longest-running and most watched shows in early television, each of them airing well before the OED would make its first reference to "talk-shows" in 1965. Other varieties of game show became the pretext for talk, as in Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life and Hollywood Squares.
Having established certain key terms and reviewed a wide range of talk programs over five decades of network television history, we now present an introductory map of the three main subgenres of TV talk, discussing some of each category's best known hosts and formats.
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