Chatter Box

PUBLISHED: November 17, 2011

Talk is cheap, and that's one explanation for why a new type of innocuous, chatty, talk programming is spreading quickly on mainstream television.

The more significant reason, however, is that the format is an extension of what is happening in new digital media - a process that could be called thought dependence, or chatter box syndrome.

The model for this type of program is "The View," ABC's coffee klatch gathering of celebrity women, led by Barbara Walters, which has been around since 1997. Although successful, and replicated in other countries, "The View" did not spawn many U.S. imitators until recently. Then, with almost the viral speed known to the Internet, the format popped up on dozens of broadcast and cable outlets.

CBS has an almost identical program called "The Talk." Fox News Channel recently launched "The Five" and "Red Eye." Just about every network, from ESPN to Bravo, has introduced shows devoted to lowbrow chitchat.

Existing programs have also implemented the format, including Sean Hannity's "The Great American Panel" on Fox News, and "The Professionals" on NBC's "Today" show.

Talk programming is nothing new on TV - in fact, it's been a staple since the earliest days. What's different is that the newer chat shows don't often bother with guests or "experts"; rather, they rely on a permanent roster of B-list panelists, whom viewers get to know much as they do the casts of "Jersey Shore" or the "Real Housewives."

It wasn't long ago that most "talking heads" were anathema to television programmers, except in the wee hours and on Sunday mornings. So what changed?

For one thing, there's the Fluff Factor. During these stressful economic and social times, many viewers are worn out by serious problems for which there seem to be no solutions. They use social media to dwell on smaller issues - and they enjoy watching groups of their TV "friends" chatting about the same innocuous things.

Julie Chen, host of "The Talk," calls her program "a support group for women out there" - what one critic quickly termed, "virtual girlfriends for people who don't have real ones." Or, perhaps, folks whose friends are only on Facebook.

The tabloid topics that provide fodder for chat TV are the ones showcased minute-to-minute on the home pages of Yahoo and AOL as well as on TMZ, Twitter and Google. It's the "hot topic" of the moment - be it the Michael Jackson verdict, Kim Kardashian's wedding fiasco, the Penn State scandal, and so forth.

Even when the chatterazzi turn to meaningful areas like politics, they tend to overdose on the more sensational issues such as Herman Cain's sexual harassment charges or Rick Perry's "brain freeze." And like the Internet, TV kibitzing rarely shapes opinions; it only tends to reinforce views through verbal mastication.

CBS has just announced the hiring of veteran talkers Charlie Rose and Gayle King, who will preside over a chat-based format as part of a total overhaul of "The Early Show." While Rose will attempt a serious news-based approach in the first hour, the second hour with King will be patterned after "The View" and "The Talk."

That such slender formats can gain popularity on TV underscores the basic loneliness in the digital age, along with the growing preference for softer, less threatening themes.

The trend in talk TV, where harshness is yielding to sappiness - as with Fox's replacement of the bombastic Glenn Beck with "The Five" - is mirrored by "reality" programming, where innocuous song and dance competitions now attract more viewers than insect-eating contests.

The sad thing about chat TV, with its virtual friends from Hollywood's and Washington's B lists, is that it's no more "real" than reality TV. As entertainment, it's harmless; as a forum for public opinion, it's rather frightening.

(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.

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