July 3, 2024

If I ran the network, part 4

Recently I kicked off a new feature, "If I Ran the Network," a series of TV concepts that would never have made it to the small screen without network executives screwing them up. If you have similar ideas, please share them in the comments section; if I get enough, I'll use them to put together a complete prime-time lineup for the fictional HBC Network!

As ABC and CBS eventually discovered, a network has to have a late-night talk show in its lineup in order to achieve some level of credibility; the Fox network even kicked off its programming with one, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, a full six months before its primetime lineup debuted. The sad fact is that many of these shows were failures, in terms of ratings if not quality, and the even sadder fact is that we would be infinitely better off if we had old movies running in place of the "talk" shows that exist in late-night today. 

I don't say this because of any particular political content (note that, Guardian), but because today's shows have completely lost the art of conversation; there isn’t much talking, guests don’t stick around to engage in banter, and an hour isn’t much time to get a good conversation in anyway. Let’s face it; today’s shows are mostly for actors and singers to talk about their latest movies or albums, and for comedians to tell a few jokes. Everything’s been pre-screened, and the host isn’t much more than a glorified press agent setting the guests up for whatever it is they want to plug. Such has always been the case, to a point, but Carson and Paar and Cavett knew how to interview someone, rather than simply feed them lines. Perhaps more important, they knew how to listen.

So in developing the station's flagship late-night show, I had several criteria to keep in mind. First, the running time needed to be restored to the traditional 90 minutes; second, guests should be encouraged to remain for the entire show, taking part in the conversation; third, the show had to have a host that could carry the load—glib, knowledgeable, a good listener as well as talker, with the ability to not only interview guests but keep the conversation going, and able to handle serious interviews as well as light ones. A sardonic sense of humor was definitely a plus. That's not asking too much, is it?

Thus was the genesis of The Bobby Rivers Show. I enjoyed him on his VH-1 program Watch Bobby Rivers, and thought he'd be perfect for the kind of program I had in mind. Like Cavett, he had the ability to ask incisive questions; like Carson, he knew how to play off of his guests; like Paar, he knew the show would only be as good as the guests made it. He could puncture pomposity without being cruel, and didn't take himself too seriously. And he knew everyone. I thought that with a format similar to that used by, say, Graham Norton—no desk, guests sitting around in a way conducive to conversation—and a Tonight Show-style house band led by a Quincy Jones protégé, we'd have a hit on our hands. I'd kind of filed the idea away, but was reminded of it when he died last year, and I still think it would have been a terrific show.

After that, viewers need something to wind down, and to provide a contrast to Bobby Rivers, I propose a one-hour show called Q&A. Similar to the original format of Tom Snyder's Tomorrow, this would have been a one-on-one interview, appropriate to a 1:00 a.m. hour: no studio audience, no musical guests, and no set—just a black backdrop, illuminating only the host and the guest. And here's the twist: except for the introduction at the beginning of the show and the transitions going into and coming out of the commercial break, the camera would remain focused only on the guest. No reaction shots of the host, no mugging for the viewers. You might see that guest from two or three different angles; it wouldn't be a static shot, as if you were watching a security camera. But this would be all about the guest.

Obviously you'd need a special kind of host for a program like this, and I never did come up with someone I thought would really work, which is why Q&A probably would never have seen the light of day. (Airing at one in the morning, it wouldn't have seen the light anyway, but you know what I mean.) The obvious contemporary choice would have been someone like Charlie Rose, or Brian Lamb from C-SPAN's Booknotes. James Lipton might have been a good choice, but I don't think he could have been satisfied with not being seen on camera, and I've got other plans for him anyway. 

The problems with a late-night lineup like this should be obvious to you. Too boring, the network suits would have said. Nobody wants to think just before they go to sleep—they want personalities. In other words, these shows would have been too smart for viewers. And maybe they're right, but I don't think so. Late-night programs nowadays have a very narrow, niche audience; they're not mainstream, and they don't try to be. It's unfortunate, and that's why I think there would be an audience for them. We'd have to get someone other than Bobby Rivers, unfortunately; maybe we can check and see what Graham Norton is doing. TV  


  1. I can't help but observe how your (very good) ideas for new talk shows were the kinds of shows that were commonplace decades ago, both at the local and national level (as a former Chicagoan I still recall Irv Kupcinet's excellent conversation series). And that these substantive, quality shows were replaced by shallow exercises in PR and partisan mocking of half the country. I hope you're right that there would be an audience for a better brand of late-night talk, but I'm not too sure.

  2. A few sitcom ideas for your consideration:

    Five clergymen, an Irish Catholic priest, an African-American Protestant minister, a white evangelical pastor, a Jewish rabbi, and a Muslim Imam meet once a week for a poker game. I’ve always liked the idea of the poker game as a springboard for back-and-forth dialogue comedy. The Odd Couple utilized it in its first season, and then abandoned it. Not sure how this would play in the current political climate.

    Two con-artist ‘pickers’ travel the circuit selling dodgy items, buying and ‘reconditioning’ other items. Sort of a combination of American Pickers and the Britcom Only Fools and Horses, with a little bit of Lovejoy thrown in.

    An unhappily married, middle-aged man who works for a lifeless corporation comes to grips with his mid-life crisis in a unique way. His hobby is cartooning, and he muses on his sad life by creating what could be. His cartoons are drawn into his real-life situations. Inspired by the classic Britcom “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin” and the short-lived American comedy “My World and Welcome to it”. Comedy/Animation.

  3. More new takes on old shows:

    The Kolchak Papers. A descendant of Carl Kolchak uses his recordings to continue his fight against evil. Kolchak encounters various legendary monsters from different cultures around the world. Must be tongue-in-cheek like the original series. The monsters and horrors of other cultures were touched upon more than a few times in the original series. Horror/Science Fiction.

    Hooterville. Modern comedy set in the bizarre town of Paul Henning’s 1960s comedies. Although I despise the "mocumentary" style sitcoms. I might work with this. Comedy.

    Johnny Fever. The wild times of Johnny Caravella, the future DJ Dr. Johnny Fever from WKRP in Cincinatti in the mid-1960s. Comedy.

    Young Lou. The journalistic exploits of the future WJM programming chief and city editor Lou Grant as a brash young reporter for the Detroit Free Press in the post-WW2 era. Comedy-drama. I hate the term “dramady”.

    Return to The Ponderosa: a continuation of Bonanza. It would take place after the 60s episodes, totally ignoring the 70s entries with the annoying Jamie character and moving in a totally different direction. The Ponderosa is overrun and taken over by land speculators (or something like that). Ben is presumed dead; Hoss and Candy are missing, and Little Joe is being hunted in the wilderness. Enter stage left, Adam. Just returned from sea where he built up a reputation as a very dangerous man to mess with.... Western.

    1. I would definitely watch Young Lou! As long as journalism from that era was portrayed accurately.

    2. I agree. I'd like to see him with a young Charlie Hume.

  4. The Mike Douglas Show was one I remember as a kid. I especially remember his interviews (and sketches) with Moe Howard. I also remember him getting all the movie Tarzans together for an interview. Douglas had an easy-going style and he let the people talk and didn't interfere.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!