Talk Shows

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The television talk show is, on the face of it, a rather strange institution. We pay people to talk for us. Like the soap opera, the talk show is an invention of twentieth century broadcasting. It takes a very old form of communication, conversation, and transforms it into a low cost but highly popular form of information and entertainment through the institutions, practices and technologies of television.

The talk show did not originate over night, at one time, or in one place. It developed out of forty years of television practice and antecedent talk traditions from radio, Chatauqua, vaudeville and popular theater. In defining the talk show it is useful to distinguish between "television talk" (unscripted presentational address) and "talk shows"--shows organized principally around talk. "Television talk" represents all the unscripted forms of conversation and direct address to the audience that have been present on television from the beginning. This kind of "live," unscripted talk is one of the basic things that distinguishes television from film, photography, the record and book industries. Television talk is almost always anchored or framed by an announcer or host figure, and may be defined, in Erving Goffman's terms, as "fresh talk," that is, talk that appears to be generated word by word and in a spontaneous manner. Though it is always to a degree spontaneous, television talk is also highly structured. It takes place in ritualized encounters and what the viewer sees and hears on the air has been shaped by writers, producers, stage managers and technical crews and tailored to the talk formulas of television.

Thus, though it resembles daily speech, the kind of talk that occurs on television does not represent unfettered conversation. Different kinds of television talk occur at different times of the broadcast day, but much of this talk occurs outside the confines of what audiences and critics have come to know as the "talk show." Major talk traditions have developed around news, entertainment, and a variety of social encounters that have been reframed and adapted for television. For example, talk is featured on game shows, dating or relationship shows, simulated legal encounters (People's Court) or shows that are essentially elaborate versions of practical jokes (Candid Camera). All of these shows feature talk but are seldom referred to as "talk shows."

A "talk show," on the other hand, is as a show that is quite clearly and self-consciously built around its talk. To remain on the air a talk show must adhere to strict time and money constraints, allowing time, for instance, for the advertising spots that must appear throughout the show. The talk show must begin and end within these rigid time limits and, playing to an audience of millions, be sensitive to topics that will interest that mass audience. For its business managers the television talk show is one product among many and they are usually not amenable to anything that will interfere with profits and ratings. This kind of show is almost always anchored by a host or team of hosts.


Talk shows are often identified by the host's name in the title, an indication of the importance of the host in the history of the television talk show. Indeed, we might usefully combine the two words and talk about host/forms.

A good example of the importance of the host to the form a talk show takes would be The Tonight Show. The Tonight Show premiered on NBC in 1954 with Steve Allen as its first host. While it maintained a distinctive format and style throughout its first four decades on the air, The Tonight Show changed significantly with each successive host. Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Jay Leno each took The Tonight Show in a significant new direction. Each of these hosts imprinted the show with distinctive personalities and management styles.

Though many talk shows run for only weeks or months...
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