Some years ago, I fell seriously ill and had to go to a hospital, where I was fitted out with catheters and intravenous tubing on both arms and could read only with great difficulty. I tried to divert myself with an enormous book on the several generations of a distinguished southern slaveholding family that had passed through various trials during the Civil War, but the weight of the book proved so unmanageable that it constantly fell from my hands.
Television quickly became my “preferred entertainment,” as opinion surveys put it, and indeed I became immoderately drawn to particular programs and series. When I left the hospital, this obsession subsided and I hardly ever watched television. But a second hospital stay last year evoked memories of the earlier one, and I recently decided to spend a day in bed watching all the shows that I used to watch—talk shows, game shows, quiz programs, soap operas, news programs, music videos.
I awoke early, to watch the sensationalist “talk shows” of Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jessie Raphael. These shows usually take up a problem—sometimes one that is being widely discussed in the press, such as the trial of Joel Steinberg for murder, but far more often an unusual one like what to do if you discover your husband leads a second life as a transvestite. People who have undergone these experiences then exchange their views with members of the audience and a panel of “experts” on the subject at hand, who are placed on an elevated stage. One should not be encouraged to suppose that these confrontations are courteous guerres des savants, since panelists and members of the audience have been known to express themselves by throwing chairs at one another. This occurred recently on a show devoted to skinheads on Geraldo Rivera’s program: Rivera’s nose was broken in the encounter. It must be said, however, that these shows possess a kind of incorruptible vulgarity that makes them a secret pleasure to watch, however badly they may fail to come up to the standards of even the more intelligent middlebrow talk shows like Donahue.
In the wider sense of the word—a show devoted largely or exclusively to talk between people about some subject—there is indeed a diversity of “talk shows.” It struck me in the hospital that one could easily go through a twenty-hour day listening to nothing but talk shows on television. Nightline and the news program of MacNeil and Lehrer are by far the most distinguished because of their penetrating interviews, both of people in public life and of specialists on issues like the greenhouse effect or the eradication of malaria. Of course what one hears on them is far from the kind of talk one gets on Crossfire, a conversation piece on CNN in which second-rank politicians and opinion experts place themselves in the “cross fire” between the “hosts,” Pat Buchanan and Tom Braden. The latter is an ex-CIA man who once claimed to …