A Brief History of the TV Talk Show

A photo of the David Letterman marquee outside his studio in New York City.

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According to most veteran broadcasters, there are two types of chatter on TV. The first is “television talk,” defined by the Museum of Broadcast Communications as unscripted conversation directed to the audience. “Talk shows” are shows organized principally around talk. So, for example, Entertainment Tonight would be “television talk,” whereas would be a “talk show.”

When Did the First Talk Show Appear?

Television talk shows have been around since the dawn of the medium, crossing over like so many shows from its origins on the radio. Thus, the start of talk shows' golden age can be considered in 1948, even though the television wasn't common in American homes until the 1950s. From 1949 to 1973, nearly half of all daytime programming on the three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) was talk.

In terms of talk show hosts, video didn't kill the radio star—it made him an even bigger star. Hosts during the golden age included Arthur Godfrey (Arthur Godfrey and his Friends), Dave Garroway (The Today Show), and Jack Paar. All were integral in the formation of the talk show formats we know and love today.

Why So Many?

Because, contrary to the catchy headline, talk is cheap. A talk show can cost less than $100,000 per episode to produce whereas many of today's dramas cost more than $1 million an episode. Thus, if successful, it can produce bountiful profits.

Still, it takes a lot of work. Since 1948, hundreds of talk shows have come and gone, with only a few having true staying power. Conan O'Brien, for example, managed to hang on only because the network didn't know what else to put in its place.

What Makes a Talk Show a 'Talk Show'?

There are several types of talk shows, from outlandish programs like Comedy Central's now-defunct The Graham Norton Effect to the more traditional. But while the styles might vary, the format is limited.

What we're most used to is the informal guest-host format, in which the show's host welcomes celebrities or other talk-worthy individuals in what is perceived as an informal discussion. Wrapped around these segments are comedic or musical segments or both.

The second most common format is the public affairs show, in which a host (or hosts) interview people in the news or experts in a given field. Shows that follow this format include both the morning news programs (Good Morning America or Meet the Press) and "issue" talk shows (The Oprah Winfrey Show or The Jerry Springer Show).

Everything else, essentially, is a hybrid of these two formats.

Why Aren't Old Talk Shows Repeated On, Say, TV Land?

Probably because they were once considered the TV equivalent of Kleenex—once used, just throw it away. Believe it or not, the first ten years of Johnny Carson's Tonight Shows were erased by NBC because the network couldn't imagine any reason to keep them.

History has changed that perception, as hosts have become more influential, their shows more topical, and the discussions generated occassionally newsworthy. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, announced his intention to run for the governorship of California on The Tonight Show. And news programs often present a round-up of talk show hosts' comments on current events—not only to entertain but to share the prevailing thought patterns of everyday women and men.

Are There Rules Talk Shows Follow?

Not strictly speaking, but The Museum of Broadcast Communications' Bernard M. Timberg notes two governing principles of all successful talk shows:

  • The Host is Everything: The host maintains a high degree of control over their show, from subject matter to comedic tone. They are also the brand and must carry that burden. The host can attract and repel guests, negotiate in kind for their program and, in many cases, name a successor when they retire.
  • Right here, right now: The second rule is that a talk show must be experienced in the present tense, whether it is broadcast live or taped in front of an audience earlier in the day. They should feel fresh as if they are happening at the moment, even if the show is a 10-year-old rerun.