Too hot for cool medium
P.J. Bednarski -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/17/2000 8:00:00 PM
After about an hour of provoking grotesque arguments between semi-literates, Jerry Springer generally wraps up his show with a kind of epilogue that tries to make sense of what we've just witnessed. "So while it is good to love your brother,'' he might say, "some siblings take that advice far too literally for their own good, with tragic results."
But mainly, the television mode is not to make a point at all. Most of the misfits who provide the rolling stock of daytime television talk aren't chastised by the hosts as much as they are hooted at or, in some cases during sweeps, beaten up by the audience.
Television is cool like that, in the McLuhan sense of the word; its stars are aloof and distant. But Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a star of radio whose daytime television show premiered last week, is not "medium cool'' like that at all.
On radio, talk-show hosts have to provoke callers to call, but, heck, they've got three or four hours to fill. They're loaded with big ideas, or better be. If you've ever gotten into a cross-country conversation with a stranger on a plane and suddenly heard yourself giving an extreme opinion even you didn't know you had, well, that's what I think most radio talk-show hosts do every day. A talk radio show is like a bad baseball game: three or four hours of nothing, a few minutes of action.
Fact is, radio hosts get known for their extreme opinions. Radio talk is derived from the premise that the host is coming from somewhere. Rush Limbaugh is a windbag full of right-wing rhetoric whose television show couldn't catch on because, I think, it's somehow too in-your-face for the medium.
(I also think arch conservatives are accustomed to being shoved off on to strange venues like AM radio, a little like a secret club.)
And it's not just conservative knuckleheads who fail on television. Danny Bonaduce might have been a Partridge, but he had a later career as a darned funny guy on the radio. When he took his act to television, however, his talk show tanked.
So did Rick Dees', a radio host so innocuous that it would have seemed likely his blandness could have been easily adapted to television. Nope. Radio guys (and Schlessinger) are too accustomed to being their own show to ever let one develop around them.
On daytime, it doesn't work like that. On lots of talk shows, the host is nearly irrelevant. Last week, for example, Maury Povich did a show on women with phobias about household pets and spent an hour thrusting kittens and dogs at women who freaked at their sight. It would have been just as good if it had been done on Jenny Jones' show.
Firm moralizing hardly ever works with talk hosts on television, I'd say, and it's probably not going to start with Schlessinger's new show. Last week, I watched three days' worth of Dr. Laura, but it was only the third show-about mothers who choose to work rather than stay at home with their kids-that got Schlessinger's righteous motor running.
It's not that Dr. Laura has some qualms or misgivings about leaving children in day care. No, no. That's the sort of wishy-washy stuff that other daytime hosts might say.
She said no mother would do it "unless you are a really crummy person." When Dr. Laura presented a child-development expert who tried to at least make a sympathetic case for day care, Dr. Laura listened but didn't bite. Kids, she said, need the memories of "the smell of cookies some mothers now say they're not going to make." Jeez.
So she's not for me, or for many millions of others who find her point of view so absolutely rigid. Gays, as the whole world must know by now, have protested the show, and good for them. And some advertisers are apparently staying away, too.
But the plain fact is that, right or wrong or nutty or just severe, Schlessinger has a point of view, and in the long run on daytime television, that may be enough to doom her.
Radio needs to create hot personalities because the average listener doesn't hang around for long. But on television, that edge creates the uncomfortable feeling of being lectured to by an extremely crabby aunt.
Bednarski can be reached at 212-337-6965 or pednarski.cahners.com
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