P:O.V. No.12 - Comparing American and European Television

Entertainment Talk on Television

Hanne Bruun

The entertainment talk show has been thriving on Danish television since the deregulation of television systems all over Western Europe in the late eighties. This deregulation brought about the creation of new television channels, and competition, as well as a change in scheduling and programming on Danish public service television (H. Bruun 2000). The emergence of a multi-channel environment and the changes in public service television have been widely discussed in the public debate as well as analyzed in media research (H. Søndergaard 2000). The changes in scheduling and programming are often seen as a result of the commercialization of television in Denmark, and commercialization is in turn often equated with an Americanization of television.

Another way to describe the development in scheduling and programming, not so charged with a negative view operating according to a single logic, is offered by the British media researcher Paddy Scannell. In his analysis of British broadcasting he uses the term the communicative ethos, and the term is used to describe a development over the years towards an increasingly genre-conscious and medium-conscious television and radio production in Great Britain (Scannell 1996:20).

In particular, this development has resulted in changes in the way the audience is addressed in broadcasting. Commercialization and the influence of American television are of cause acknowledged in Scannell’s analysis, but so are the development of professional skills and the changes from a paternalistic to a much more egalitarian tone in public service broadcasting as well as in society at large.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the term communicative ethos is also applicable to the changes that have taken place in Danish television. The influence and inspiration from American entertainment talk shows like Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Jay Leno is clearly discernible in the various ways in which the communicative ethos of Danish public television has changed. Nevertheless, there are significant differences between American and Danish entertainment talk shows. In the following, these differences will be investigated in some detail, in an effort to clarify the process of adaptation whereby the American form has become part of Danish public service television.

Broadly speaking one could say that while these shows clearly portray the characteristics of the American entertainment talk show, they are also marked by traditional journalistic ideals, mostly applicable to news journalism, and they are marked by a tradition of broadcasting portraits of celebrities instead of talk shows. To exemplify this process of adaptation I will take a close look at a short interview from a David Letterman Show and compare its characteristics to those of Danish entertainment talk shows like Meyerheim after Eight (TV 2 1993-94), Jarl’s (DR 1994), Dario’s Joint (TV 2 1998), and Bertelsen (DR2 1999-2000).

In his useful and insightful book on television genres, the American media researcher Brian G. Rose focuses specifically on the entertainment talk show (Rose 1985). Since the early days of television in the USA, the entertainment talk show has been popular. Rose points to its defining features: it is either live or live-on-tape; the show takes place in a television studio before a studio audience as well as before the television audience; the entertainment talk show features a studio host and celebrity guests; and the content of the show is dominated by talk, with the interview being the way in which most of the talk is managed. Rose goes on to consider why the genre has been able to gain such popularity over the years when it is so extremely simplistic compared to other television genres. Of the various explanations that Rose gives, two in particular are worth highlighting: the sense of immediacy and the feelings of sociability that these shows offer their viewers. The shows are about personalities in a staged atmosphere of politeness and geniality and the relationship between the host and his guests is easily compared to a light-hearted conversation at a party. Familiarity, cheerfulness and pleasantry as well as a mildly teasing tone underlining an informal and unplanned keying of the interaction, are typical of the entertainment talk show.

How these qualities become entertaining for the viewers, and not just boring superficial pieces of interaction between a host and a celebrity guest can be illustrated by an interview in a David Letterman Show broadcast on the Danish channel 3+ on February 13, 1998. The guest in the interview is the young American actor Ethan Hawke, and his presence on the show is motivated by his leading role in a then newly-released film based on Dickens’ novel Great Expectations. But even though the guest is a well-known actor, the host of the show, David Letterman, is extremely important, and he is the major source of the entertaining qualities in the show – not the various guests. Letterman and his staging of the predictable elements of the show create the entertaining qualities. In addition to the band leader with whom he has a kind of love-hate relationship Letterman makes use of a range of other devices that add entertaining qualities, such as the comic monologue opening each show. All these elements contribute to the entertainment value of the show. But Letterman’s most important tools by far are his own personality, his looks and his facial expressions, in all of which Letterman’s past as a stand-up comedian can clearly be seen. Indeed, his ironic and sometimes sarcastic attitude when looking into the camera and commenting on American political and social issues makes it important to not just listen to Letterman, but to look at him as well. The guests on the programs are in many ways secondary to the host because of these characteristics. Even though the show seems so very host-dominated, the talk show is still a profitable way for the entertainment industry and its celebrities to cooperate with the television industry in order to create television content and commercials rolled into one.

In the interview with Ethan Hawke, Letterman turns the marketing strategy of the film industry into a funny and benevolent verbal competition between himself and his guest. The fun is created through the way the interview is staged and from what lies between the lines in the interaction between the two men. Taken on the surface, the interview is dull and is mostly about Hawke’s wife, the actress Uma Thurman, and how Hawke met her, and a little bit about the film. I would like to describe Letterman’s interview strategy as one of ‘non-verbal subtitling,’ the source of which is Letterman’s approach to Hawke, in which he utilizes two conflicting elements. First of all, Hawke is a man who looks extremely young, and he behaves as if he is rather nervous. But secondly, Hawke is actually famous, and he is also going to marry a famous actress with a sophisticated image, and furthermore they are expecting a baby. The interview is therefore really about the following themes which, however, are never directly addressed:

• The first theme is potency: Letterman tries to cast Hawke in the role of a child, certainly not a grown man who is sexually active and appreciates women in the same way Letterman does. On the whole, Hawke is not to be regarded as a rival. The theme emerges from Letterman's giving the impression that he is very, very fond of Hawke’s partner Uma Thurman by wanting to talk about her most of the time. Furthermore, he is eager to talk about all the (real) men interested in Uma Thurman, and how Ethan Hawke feels about that, for instance Mick Jagger's phone calls to Thurman. The potency-theme underlies Letterman’s reactions to Hawke’s narrative of how he met Uma Thurman in which Letterman directs attention to the fifty-year old man that she was with at that time.

• The second theme is that of power: Letterman is much older than his guest, and the age difference is used by Letterman to cast himself in the role of a moral authority on correct behavior, with Hawke in the role of an inexperienced boy who still has to be morally guided and corrected in an exaggerated patronizing way. Letterman calls his guest ‘son’ several times, and an example illustrating this subtitle is shown in the following pictures and verbal interaction from a clip where Letterman talks to Hawke in this avuncular manner, using the power-subtitle:

Letterman: Uma Thurman has been on the show many, many times...

...and by the way, when she is here, she sits up straight!

(Loud applause and laughter from the audience.)

The conflict between Letterman as libertine and as guide to correct behavior is obvious.

• The third theme is that of status: Letterman is the host and in charge of the show, but he is perhaps also more famous and therefore of a higher status than Hawke. Instead of being polite, as might be expected of a host in a position like that, Letterman is deliberately insensitive toward his guest. For instance, his frequent underlining of how often Uma Thurman has been a guest, while this show is Hawke’s first appearance, is an example of the status theme in the short interview. In this way, Letterman indirectly positions Ethan Hawke as a lower-ranking person, and himself as snob.

The three subtitles are simultaneously present in the interaction, and the guest plays along, accepts the casting, and fights back, winning some of the verbal battles with the host. An example is a sequence where the two men are talking about Hawke and Thurman not being married, though expecting a baby. Letterman says "I just assumed that since you are having a baby, you were married?" and Hawke replies "Yes you... and my father!" with an eloquent look at the studio audience. Hawke responds both to the power theme and to the potency theme in his little remark, and Letterman gets cast as the old-fashioned moralizer as well as an old man, indirectly a sexually unimportant man.

The interview strategy of ‘non-verbal subtitling’ and the way the guest plays along, turn the short interview into a piece of lively, unpredictable interaction in the otherwise perhaps all too predictable structure of the entertainment talk show. The talk gives the impression of being spontaneous, is full of irony and a tone of mutual friendly teasing and respect. In many ways the interaction has qualities quite similar to the fast verbal humor of the situation comedy. The point is that the fun in the interviews of the David Letterman Show (if you find it funny) is typically a result of Letterman’s non-verbal subtitles in the interviews and the guests' ability to respond to them.

The interview strategy of the Danish entertainment talk shows like Meyerheim After Eight or Jarl’s has typically been rather different from the characteristics illustrated by the interview in the David Letterman Show. The host will play a much more subdued and traditional role as the journalistic interviewer, and his personality is not the main source of the entertainment.

In many ways the hosts of the Danish entertainment talk shows have been marked by the journalistic ideal of focusing on the issue rather than on the personality of the presenter or on the interaction in itself and the relationship with the viewers. This has been the style of the Danish shows even in a program like Dario’s Joint (TV 2 1998), hosted by the well-known stand-up comedian Casper Christensen. In short: all the important elements of the American shows are toned down in the Danish shows. Because of the staging of the hosts, the celebrity guests on the Danish shows are to deliver the entertainment, and the shows typically contain a lengthy narrative about the life history of the celebrity guest.

In short, the guest's personality and life story are almost the sole content of the show, not the interaction between the host and the guest as in the American entertainment talk show. The Danish entertainment shows, in contrast to their American counterparts, offer portraits of the celebrity guests. In this respect the Danish shows draw on a long public service television tradition of broadcasting portraits of celebrities. Whether the narrative is funny and entertaining or not, is not the responsibility of the hosts, but of the celebrity guests: if the guest is funny and entertaining, the show will be too. The entertainment is not the task of the personality of the host or of the interview-strategy.

In combining some of the characteristics of classic American entertainment talk shows with a more traditional journalistic interviewer portraying the celebrity guest, the Danish entertainment talk show has run into some problems. Due to the relatively small number of celebrities as well as the limited size of the entertainment industry in Denmark, the ‘sources’ of this kind of talk show are in constant danger of dying out. It thus seems even more important to find talk show hosts capable of delivering the entertaining qualities themselves.

If the host is the most important content of the show, dependency on the guests will be much less, and the kind of guests usable for the entertainment talk show will increase. At the moment, these problems in Danish television are pushing the genre in two different directions.

An example of the first direction is Danish television making an entertainment talk show and taking into account all the characteristics of the American versions in its staging of the host and the interview style. The show was called Bertelsen (DR2 1999-2000), and in many ways it points to future Danish entertainment talk shows developing in the direction of the classic American form.

Another line of development, however, involves trying to hold on to the tradition of the television portrait. Recently, TV 2 in particular has been dealing with the shortage of good entertainment talk show hosts by combining the entertainment talk show with the game show in the two very successful programs, Den Store Klassefest (The Class Reunion) and Venner for Livet (Friends for Life). In both shows, the game provides a portrait of the celebrities from new angles, thus avoiding the problem of the audience's having repeatedly heard the life story of all the celebrities in Denmark.

To conclude: the adaptation of the entertainment talk show is not a simple story of the Americanization of Danish public service television, but of a national adaptation of an (in many ways) international television genre, much to the benefit of the viewers of entertainment television.

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Bruun, Hanne. "Eleva2ren – TV 2 og talkshowet" in H. Bruun (ed.) TV 2 på Skærmen – analyser af TV 2’s programvirksomhed. Copenhagen: Samfundslitteratur, 2000.

Rose, Brian G. "The Talk Show" in Brian G. Rose (ed.) TV Genres. A handbook and reference guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Scannell, Paddy. Radio, Television and modern life. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Søndergaard, Henrik. "TV 2 som hybridkanal" in H. Bruun (ed.) TV 2 på Skærmen – analyser af TV 2’s programvirksomhed. Copenhagen: Samfundslitteratur, 2000.

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