NEW YORK — Bob Berkowitz says there is one question he gets asked most by those who recognize him on the street: "How do you keep a straight face?"
Berkowitz, in case you haven't seen it (or admitted to anyone that you have), is host of "Real Personal," a five-night-a-week, very frank discussion of sex that airs on the cable channel CNBC. And as Berkowitz, a former news reporter for CNN and NBC, sees it, the oft-repeated question is the very reason the program is necessary.
"For some people, even a discussion about sex is threatening," he says, "and yet this is supposed to be a wonderful way of communicating with someone in a relationship."
Berkowitz and his bosses at CNBC claim theirs is the only TV program that puts it out there in an open and candid way, in a simple format of conversation between host and guests. These always (and sometimes only) include an "expert" or two, as well as some real folks grappling with an issue they are willing to share. Berkowitz also takes phone calls.
"Finding people to come on is still somewhat difficult," concedes Carole Autori, the show's supervising producer. "But now that we're known, people trust Bob and they trust us. We've managed to create an atmosphere of enormous intimacy, and guests are looking for a safe place to talk about these things. And we never humiliate or sandbag them."
How many variations on a theme can you come up with, you might wonder--and, indeed, the show's topics do tend to differ only marginally. Basically they're all "how to charge up your sex life" in some form.
But the program is in its third year and, aside from what Berkowitz calls "the O.J.s" (referring to the channel's special broadcasts on the Simpson trial), "Real Personal" is the top-rated show on CNBC (about 500,000 viewers per night in this country, plus more in other countries via NBC's Super Channel).
Berkowitz, 45, sees no end in sight for subject matter. Sex, he reasons, is something people never tire of.
"If I worked at ESPN, would people ask how I can do only sports every night?" he wonders. "Well, the truth is, I was sad when there was a baseball strike, but my life went on for some 200 days. I don't think I'd want to go that long without at least thinking about making love."
"Real Personal" originates from the channel's headquarters in Ft. Lee, N.J., at the very adult hour of 11 p.m., but because CNBC has only one feed, it is seen on the West Coast at 8 p.m.--an hour when many hormonally charged kids are zapping around the TV with their remotes.
"We consider it very unfortunate that it airs in L.A. at 8," says Andy Friendly, vice president of prime-time programs for CNBC. "We're hoping to get a second feed next year. Though I will say that most of the shows are more responsible and less exploitive than the daytime talk shows."
CNBC executives say they haven't had any complaints from outraged parents in the Pacific time zone, but they acknowledge that such gripes more likely would be directed at local cable companies.
In any case, there is actually a lot not being said on "Real Personal."
"It is not a total free-for-all," Friendly says, "and we've had to keep a tight leash on the producers, who always try to push the envelope even further. I never want the show to cross into the sensational."
Adds Berkowitz: "We're not into heavy S&M or bestiality, for example. Basically we talk about anything you'd be comfortable talking about with a doctor"--although a recent week included a show on menages a trois and at least one recent guest touted the joys of bondage.
Any more frankness and CNBC would have even more trouble finding sponsors for the program--something both Friendly and Berkowitz say is an ongoing battle.
"It's always been an issue for us," says Friendly, who explains that "most sponsors would just rather put their money on safer topics. However, we do make money on the show."
Those in the analytical field have mixed feelings about the program.
"I think it's a show that masquerades as clinical when it's really about using big, sexy words for titillation," says Joyce Ashley, a New York therapist who formerly specialized in sex therapy.
But June M. Reinisch, director emerita of the Kinsey Institute and a frequent guest on the show, argues: "People talk about sex a lot, but there are few real good resources, and this show is one. From the letters I've received from viewers, I'm convinced it's really helpful, and I've had many therapists ask me if they can get copies of certain shows to use with their patients."
Berkowitz seems sincerely proud and unembarrassed about what he does, seeing this as a natural transition from his days as the "men's issues" correspondent for the "Today" show.
"I'm not only comfortable with the subject, but I'm a good interviewer and I've always dreamed of hosting a show," he says. "I have an insatiable curiosity."
He says he runs into his former news colleagues periodically. "I saw Sam Donaldson in Washington and he said, 'My God, Berkowitz, what's happened to you?' " he recalls. "Then he admitted he watches me all the time."
* "Real Personal" airs weeknights at 8 p.m., with repeats at 11:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, on CNBC.