Page last updated at 13:35 GMT, Monday, 17 May 2010 14:35 UK

What makes a good talk-show host?

David Dickinson, Oprah Winfrey, Jonathan Ross and Alan Carr

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Once they were the preserve of TV royalty, but now every Tom, Dickinson and Harry has a talk show - antiques expert David Dickinson being the latest. But there's more to being a great chat show host than merely asking a few questions.

What do you get if you put Hollyoaks actress Sheree Murphy, comedian Joe Pasquale and the Lady Boys of Bangkok together? The opening line-up for David Dickinson's new chat show, which starts on ITV on Monday.

Dickinson is the latest personality to get his own show. Some have come to define the genre, like Michael Parkinson, while others have simply never returned after one series, like Davina McCall. So what makes a good talk-show host?

Muhammad Ali  and Michael Parkinson
Parkinson's guest included some of the world's biggest stars

"The best hosts are the ones who let their guests take centre stage - not themselves," says Gareth McLean, who writes about TV for the Guardian and the Radio Times.

"They shouldn't dominate or use the guest simply as a butt for all their jokes. Neither should it be a cosy, sycophantic love-in. You want the host to be on the side of the audience and try and find stuff out. It shouldn't feel like they're just having a laugh with their mates and you're lucky to be watching."

But while repartee is important, research is essential to avoid the interview becoming just publicity puff. Parkinson - widely regarded as one of the UK's best talk-show hosts in his heyday - came from a journalistic background and did "forensic research" into each guest, says the Mirror's TV columnist, Kevin O'Sullivan.

"His attitude was that the guest was the star and to find out all he could about them. Being a trained journalist he also had a nose for a good story. One of the most frustrating things nowadays is that most hosts don't come from this background, so on the rare occasion a celebrity actually reveals something interesting they often miss it."

But the nature of talk shows has changed since the 1970s and 1980s. Love it or loath it, now the host often is the star of the show. It all started with The Last Resort in the late 1980s, which launched Jonathan Ross's career, says O'Sullivan.

'Lite, trite and fun'

"He took the US ethos of the host being the star and moulding guests into what they need them to be to make the show successful. That's often what a successful host is all about these days."

The nature of celebrity has also changed, making the modern host's job more difficult. Stars are now "brands" and micro-managed by publicists who tell them what they should and shouldn't say.

"A good host is someone who tries to sneak round all of that," believes McLean. "Graham Norton is often criticised for the silly games he plays, but by putting his guests in an odd position he often gets an insight into them. It's all about catching them off guard."

Afternoon talks shows are like a chat with friends, they're not glamorous - nor is the host
TV critic Gareth McLean

A good host will also try to negotiate with publicists to do something different, says TV director Olly Mann, who has overseen interviews on programmes such as the BBC's Culture Show.

Examples include Graham Norton convincing Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly - stars of TV cop show Cagney and Lacey - to have a mock conversation amplified in a ladies' loo, to see how members of the public reacted.

"The more respected a host is the easier it is to do. Publicists too often have almost all the power when it comes to chat shows these days, but a big-name host still has some pull."

The nature of the talk show has also changed in another way over the years. From an in-depth, evening conversation, it is now more likely to be a cosy, afternoon chat. Like many before him, Dickinson's new show will be broadcast at 3pm every weekday.

This "sub prime-time" slot is considered important by broadcasters because if you get viewers in the late afternoon they often stay all evening. And for that time of day and that type of audience it's all about being "lite, trite and fun", says O'Sullivan.

"Daytime television has its own rules. The audience want that nice Alan Titchmarsh asking straightforward questions about a star's new West End show. To be a good host on those talk shows it's all about making everyone feel nice and cosy."

They are like a chat with friends, says McLean. "They're not glamorous - nor is the host."

The jury will be out on Dickinson's success as a host until he gets a few shows under his belt, but just remember not to tweak the contrast on your television - he really is that orange.

The David Dickinson show is on ITV at 1500 BST Monday to Friday

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I've seen David Dickinson on a few television programs and I find his style very refreshing. He comes across as a very charming, real and debonair person. Some personalities on television should get a personality !! David certainly has one and I look forward to watching him in the future.
Bev, Welling

Is this really all that can be offered these days?
Brian, Gloucester

In my viewm there will only ever be one recognised King of CVhat shows - Parky. No one can touch him, the guests he had on his show were phenominal. Who will ever forget his "Punch ups" with Rod Hull and Emu, not to forget the infamous Ali. The one sticks out in my mind is the double interview with Freddie Starr and Mohammed Ali. Freddie had Ali in the palm of his hands telling a story and suddenly yelled out. Mohammed was shocked, very very entertaining. You can't get that today. Long live King Parky
Ian, Manchester England

Like so much of television, talk-shows have been dumbed down to the point of inanity. Sadly the days of Michael Parkinson, when you were guaranteed intelligent conversation, entertaining anecdotes and intriguing insight, are long behind us. Now you get self-obsessed 'celebrities' swapping silly jokes with other self-obsessed 'celebrities', with no value whatsoever for the viewer. Bring back Parky!
Douglas Lee, London, UK

"This 'sub prime-time' slot is considered important by broadcasters because if you get viewers in the late afternoon they often stay all evening." That may have held true back in the days of three channels and manual channel changing, but now on Digital we have a multitude of channels to choose from, and a remote control to do it with.
Alex the Hat, Cardiff(Wales)

No-one can hold a candle to Jonathan Ross, he could interview the Krankies and Chuckle Brothers and still make a superior show to the competition. I was in his studio audience last month and, although the lineup wasn't great compared with some he's had, we still had a fantastic night. Parkinson's often cited as the definitive chat show host but I always found him far too reverent. Jonathan pops egos but he's also respectful and charming - never nasty. And yes, he does most of the talking, but then he's funnier than his guests - it's him I tune in for, not his guests.
Becky Davidson, Leamington Spa

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific