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A 'Bench,' a Camera and Huell Howser

Television: KCET introduces five episodes of an experimental show by the low-key interviewer.

August 05, 1996|LEE MARGULIES | TIMES TELEVISION EDITOR

Could easy-going Huell Howser get any more low-key in his approach to television? Fans of his public television series "Visiting" and "California's Gold" wouldn't think so, but they'd be wrong.

Those shows are incredibly informal, but at least there is a purpose to each of them, whether to profile a historical site, to celebrate a community event or to interview an interesting person. In "The Bench," which is getting a five-episode tryout this week on KCET-TV Channel 28, Howser merely stations cameraman Luis Fuerte near a neighborhood bench and starts chatting with whoever comes by.

"It's as simple a premise as you can get--just going to a bench and talking with people," Howser says in his folksy Tennessee twang. "We don't know who's going to be there, what they're going to talk about, what their stories will be."

In most hands this would be a prescription for disaster. But Howser is a modern-day Will Rogers: He seems never to have met a person he didn't like, and the people who meet him generally respond in kind (some because they already know him from TV).

Forget about the promotional patter of the TV talk shows, the angry rhetoric of talk radio: This is simply engaging people in conversation--about their neighborhoods, their jobs, their hobbies, their families.

"It's just a way of tapping into L.A. and its stories," Howser says. "The most interesting stories are from people we never think to talk to, the people we pass by everyday, people we never slow down long enough to get in conversation with."

The five pilot shows were funded by the California Community Foundation. With the tapes in hand, Howser will go looking for someone to put up the money to turn "The Bench" into an ongoing series.

* "The Bench" airs Monday through Friday this week at 7:30 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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