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Still Brash After All These Years : Television: Tom Snyder's CNBC show is a cross between the talk show that made him a star and today's phone-in format. He's as breezy as ever, with his trademark laugh punctuating the action throughout.

January 18, 1994|RICK DU BROW

During a commercial break on CNBC's "Tom Snyder" show last week, the star hustled over to the makeup room next door with a couple of quips.

"Back at Fort Lee," he said, referring to the New Jersey headquarters of the NBC-owned cable network, "they sit back and think we're crazy. They say, 'What are they doing?' Well, it's called television."

In fact, it's a cross between the simple, free-swinging talk show that made Snyder network TV's first late-late star on the "Tomorrow" series from 1973-1982 and the phone-in format that now is all the rage.

But if Snyder, who followed Johnny Carson with "Tomorrow" before NBC gave the time slot to David Letterman, is keeping up with the times, he hasn't changed all that much--he's as brash and breezy as ever, with his trademark laugh punctuating the action throughout.

On the information superhighway, the "Tom Snyder" show is a diner, just off the shoulder, as you're whizzing through the electronic age.

It airs live coast-to-coast from NBC's Burbank studios at 7-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday Pacific time and is repeated at 10 p.m. But, he notes, "I'm on television seven nights a week. Cable is rerun. That's how they make their money.

"(CNBC) got mad at me because they put up a thing that said if you want a videocassette of Tom's show, send $14.95. I said, 'Why would you send $14.95? It's on again in three hours. Set your tape machine.' They called me and I said, 'Do you think people are stupid?' So now we don't sell the reruns anymore. Of course not. Why should you ding people $14.95?"

This attitude of blunt talk and irascibility has etched his image in nearly four decades in broadcasting, from local news to network TV to national radio. For many viewers, the image is accompanied by Dan Aykroyd's classic takeoff on Snyder on "Saturday Night Live" when the talk host was on a roll as a celebrity.

Now 57, Snyder remains energetic and looks good, with silvery-white hair and black glasses that he occasionally slips on. Surrounded by a young staff--his supervising producer, Michael Horowitz, says, "A bunch of us came from lousy jobs and we're just having a great time over here"--Snyder seems to be reveling in the party atmosphere as the old pro who encourages and participates in on-air high jinks.

Despite his acknowledged ease as a down-home, engaging, plain-spoken personality, he has been criticized by some in the past for being abrasive. But now he seems comfortable enough to needle himself and that image.

On this particular night last week, his guests included Top 40 guru Casey Kasem and and New York advertising guru Jerry Della Famina, whom he introduced as "the man who almost destroyed my career."

Snyder was referring to his flop on the local news at WABC-TV in New York. Exchanging good-natured barbs and banter with Della Famina, Snyder showed the infamous poster/billboard that tried to sell him to the public at WABC. It said: "He's charming. He's exciting. He's caustic. He's outrageous. He's informed. He's controversial. He's involved. He's emotional. He's New York."

Cracked Snyder: "Not only have we told New York that he's caustic, he's outrageous, he's controversial, that this guy's a real jerk, we've said he's New York and therefore all of you who live in New York are just as big a jerk as he is. That was the research."

Snyder works out of a matchbox-sized studio, a few feet from his staff and visitors. The makeup room next door, where guests wait to go on, is also tiny but well-appointed. The intimacy seems to work for him. There is a loose, comfortable tone. He converses. He mugs. He gets back to business.

"Everybody's making a bundle . . . and I'm sitting here for a quarter a week," he says at one point on the show. He clowns, on air, with the folks in the control room, and they respond by singing a Christmas carol.

But Della Famina, before he leaves the guest room for his appearance, observes: "You know what's really interesting about this show? The camerawork is really good. They come in, they don't screw around."

In fact, except for the little visuals, the camera does come in and stay right in for extreme close-ups. In an interview in his office after the program, Snyder notes:

"We have a very soft look, with the Los Angeles background with the lights flickering. Most shows on cable have bright lights and the sets have a lot of boxiness and desks, and I don't want a desk between me and the audience. That's no good for me. It's like a wall."

With late-night talk competition commanding attention, does Snyder wish he was again part of the network fray?

"I'm very happy with what I do here. This is perfect for me. I like being live in all time zones. I like the phones, which you can't do on a TV network. And network television has become so big and so important, with so many millions of dollars involved--and I don't do big television. This is a nice little television program. I'm not good at big television."

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