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COVER STORY : All Ears, All Day in TV Hell : Around the clock, the airwaves are saturated with talk shows, news programs and infomercials, all adding to television's ever-spiraling tower of babble. Could one lone critic watch it all--and live to write about it?

June 27, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic

There's no more abundant commodity on television than talk.

It spins on the airwaves almost around the clock, whether in traditional talk shows or in other programs that feature talk-show components--such as morning news programs and infomercials.

That on most days there is more talk than things to talk about has not in any way crimped the genre's growth. Because they cost relatively little and have the potential to make so much, talk shows are on nearly every programmer's wish list. They come and go continuously, as do the personalities who earn their livings as talk-show hosts (anyone who can dress himself is deemed qualified).

Only this month, former tennis star Chris Evert had her own talk special; her strikingly unforgettable chat with Eddie Murphy undoubtedly puts her in line for her own series.

Those weird viewers who somehow find television too tongue-tied for their tastes can look forward to the special talk-show cable channel that is in the works.

Until then, all of us will have to make do with what we have: more than three dozen programs a day in which talk, from babble to genuine dialogue, is a centerpiece.

Could anyone watch them all, and live to write about it? On June 16, I did my best, monitoring and keeping a journal on portions of every talk or talk-oriented show available in the area of Los Angeles where I live. There are some omissions, for which I mostly blame my cable system. Because CNBC is not accessible in my area, for example, I was unable to watch the block of talk shows that air nightly on that cable channel. And some other talkers (like those on Spanish-speaking KMEX-TV) were beyond my personal reach.

Because it merely encompasses one 24-hour period, there is nothing scientific about this survey. But with the endemic bizarreness of the cross-dressing, cross-schlepping May ratings sweeps having passed happily into history, I hoped to capture the true nitty-gritty of talk, on a day when the prevailing news headlines were about alleged Pepsi tampering, President Clinton's tightrope walking on the political-economic front and the continuing miseries in Bosnia and Somalia.

In that regard, it's worth noting that one could easily infer from a large chunk of what I watched that our society is dysfunctional, that starting with the basic family unit, we are a nation of self-abusers. That's not to say it's a true picture, only that (despite the viewing day's few droplets of happy juice) it was the clearest one emerging from the TV talk circuit on June 16, 1993:

6:45 a.m. On Pat Robertson's Christian religious program "The 700 Club," co-host Terry Anne Meeuwsen interviewed housecleaning authority Mary Ellen Pinkham. "In addition to cleaning houses and things," Meeuwsen noted in a segue for the ages, "you've had a special cleaning that's taken place in your heart."

After noting that she gave her life to Jesus as a child, Pinkham added: "There are things that the Lord wants me to do. He wants me to show people what to do around the house." She demonstrated the cleaning of a fluted lampshade. "Now for stains," she said, "this is what the Lord sent me." She displayed a container. "It's called Mary Ellen's WOW. This will remove stains that have been with you for 30 years."

"Born-again" entrepreneur Pinkham said the Lord awakened her one morning and announced, "Mary Ellen, you are going to have a giving ministry." Having a giving ministry "is nice," she mused, because "it's nice making money."

7:19 a.m. On NBC's "Today" program, host Katie Couric led a discussion about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "Good choice, bad choice?" she asked the show's regular panel of journalists. "In the end, I think it's an inspired choice," said Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief.

7:28 a.m. "Focus on Beauty" looked like a talk show, with host Cher flanked on a couch by two full-maned beauties and hair-care mogul Lori Davis. Instead, it was an infomercial on Lifetime cable. "Well, we're just about out of time for this edition of 'Focus on Beauty,' " Cher said, "but before we go, I just want to tell you . . . Lori has made this one-month free trial offer that I just can't believe."

7:48 a.m. "The things we do for beauty," co-host Joan Lunden told a beauty expert on ABC's "Good Morning America."

8:11 a.m. The Catholic Church is incapable of responding to molestation charges against its priests, charged an author, the Rev. Andrew Greeley, to "CBS This Morning" co-host Harry Smith. What most Catholics are seeking is not punishment of the clergymen, Smith said, but "recognition that some kind of problem exists." Greeley said the church had "no strong motivation" to provide that recognition. Also, he estimated that no more than 4% to 5% of Catholic priests are pedophiles.

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