Do You Watch Talk Shows on Television?
Broadly, there are two versions of the talk show format. In the first, two or more people meet, typically before a live audience, to debate a topic of contemporary relevance. In the other, a host interviews a noted individual about an event or series of events in that person’s life.
In each case, the quality of the debate or the emotional insight depends on three factors: the person asking the questions, the person answering the questions, and whether either party has an agenda. I would, for example, watch a late-night talk show on the BBC: experience teaches that the questions will be penetrating and the host won’t allow his guests to veer from the subject. I would not, however, watch a late-night talk show on ITV: experience teaches that the host’s views will take centre-stage and that the panellists may not be experts in their field.
Moreover, hosts known for a forceful presenting style are often known also for holding strong views. We know what Jeremy Kyle thinks of absent fathers, for example, just as we know what Jeremy Clarkson thinks of global warming and Richard Littlejohn of political correctness. We could not, however, infer Michael Parkinson’s opinions from his work as an interviewer: he sees his role as enabling the interviewee.
Well-executed, talk shows reflect the democratic process: they encourage engagement and scholarly debate, and alert the viewer to perspectives they may not otherwise have considered. Poorly executed, debate degenerates into a bear-pit of recrimination, polemics and sound bites. The wider question, then, is: why do we watch talk shows? To be challenged or to reinforce our existing beliefs? To indulge in gossip or learn about lives well-lived?
I would argue that, often, the answer depends on…