Sunday, April 23, 2006

Death of the chat show

Davina McAll's new chat show has generated small audiences. This is of course a terrible shock, since the last time the BBC decided to try to exploit their underused expensive talent by building a chat show around Graham Norton had similar results. Partly I think this is because those devising such programmes overestimate the audience's affection for the Big Name as a *person*. I like Davina in her Big Brother and Streetmate roles, less so in her sitcom; this isn't because I can only think of her talents in that form, it's just that that's hwere her talents lie (or so it seems to me). One of the best ways of cheering oneself up is to go through IMBD and look at all the actors who decided to leave long-running series to avoid getting typecast and who never worked again. Soap audiences, in particular, are very tolerant: if someone hangs around for long enough they will be thought of affectionately even if they can't act.

But more basically, there is a fault in understanding a chat show audience. It is, as Norton has noted, all about the guests. Good chat show hosts make their guests seem interesting, spontaneous and coherent. Unfortnately, the other half of the equation is that they should also be well-known. This makes choosing them hard. There's nothing in particular wrong with people appearing to plug their book or series, as long as they realise that when doing so they also need to provide some form of entertainment.

But chat shows have fallen in status forever. There was a time when apparently unmediated access to celebrities in their off-screen personas was in itself of interest. It came as a revelation to hear Eric Clapton in the 1970s talk about himself. This access is no longer exciting: every film comes with a dutifully dull 'Making of' film; celebrity magazines trace the ups and downs of stars' daily lives; websites can instantly provide more information than you could possibly want about the obscurist and most ephemeral of public figures. So the question about chat shows becomes: why should anyone bother? Even if Davina arranged a meeting between Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Bob Dylan to talk about their art, I still wouldn't be tuning in.

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