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The Talk Show as Dinner Party

Tina Brown's "Topic A" brings the charm of a Victorian salon to CNBC.

2:00 PM, May 1, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
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TINA BROWN'S talk show on CNBC, which debuted last night, happens only four times a year. Therefore, it might compare with a daily show the way a quarterly journal compares with a newspaper, the former being deeper and less on the cusp of the latest news story. Only it's not deeper than your average talk show. Still, it's not too bad if its pretensions don't rub you the wrong way.

The basic format is generic, although the show proves to be otherwise. The former queen of buzz sits on one side of the table and chats with her famous and almost famous guests (two at a time), who make up a rather effete roster of smart, beautiful, and rich personages. Indeed, there is something almost Victorian about Ms. Brown's invite list. There is a very smart writer from a fashionable magazine talking with a strapping captain of industry, and then we are treated to the chatter of a celebrated historian as he makes nice with the queen of Jordan, the whole cast rounded out by an important press baron with the most biting wit and yet another influential businessman whose contacts in Asia are the very best.

Here lies the basic difference of "Topic A with Tina Brown" (which is being reprised on May 4 at 9 p.m. EST): While the reigning concepts of popular talk cleave neatly between the neighborly warmth of Oprah Winfrey and the confrontational style of Bill O'Reilly, Tina Brown stakes out territory few others seem to covet, the occasional dinner-party talk show. The program's other novelty is that Tina Brown, endearingly, appears to genuinely like her guests without worshipping them.

But the problem with dinner parties is that bristling skeptics don't get invited and cross examination is frowned upon. So twice in a row Barry Diller fails to answer direct questions, but, this being a polite affair, the conversation moves on. Another problem is vagueness. Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker says that since the high-tech bubble burst the new big thing is "good judgement." Diller mentions "process," which he says is a word he uses, well, constantly, before employing another favorite, "interactivity." There should be another guest who says, "I have no idea what you're talking about. Please explain." Such an addition, however, and the comments necessary to ground this highfalutin conversation, would surely conflict with the show's time constraints.

The recurring themes of the show's first installment were the possibility that Americans are becoming more conservative, the commanding presence of Fox News on cable television, and George W. Bush--good or bad. But possibly the most interesting realization to come from this is that all the best people are practically dumbstruck by the success of Fox in a way reminiscent of how the entire country freaked out about Rush Limbaugh in the mid-90s. Not that the guests had identical reactions, but they all had strong reactions, while many other topics simply died on the vine, as when Simon Schama wondered whether the United States had really thought through what it meant change the Iraqi regime. "It is a mistake," said Schama with mountainous condescension for American leaders and the people of Iraq, "to assume the most important thing for all peoples is freedom."

Schama was by far the most catty guest, even as he sucked up to Queen Noor, praising her late husband for his great (read: inconsequential) leadership in the Middle East. As television goes, however, it was fairly amusing.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.