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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV columnist
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Dec. 22, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

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Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.

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Tom Shales: Greetings and salutations (and who used to say that?). Happy holidays as well. Thanks to those of you who are already waiting with questions and comments and here we go with attempted answers........

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Dallas TX: Mr. Shales:

I really don't understand your infatuation with Diane Sawyer. Attractive, yes; but she has an air of being above it all, that she is deigning to favor us with her presence, that she is Princess Di reading us the news.

Besides, the network "news" shows are so filled with commercials, happy talk and trivia they are a waste of time for anyone who makes any effort to keep up during the day with the internet, radio, etc....

Tom Shales: AS for my Sawyer infatuation - well I hope it isn't merely chemical or whatever. I feel good when she is on the air; she bolsters my spirits and my confidence in the network news business, which always seems to be having hard times. You say in effect that a 22-minute, commercial-clogged network newscast is worthless, yet I think there is still a place for it in our over-informed world - a crisp capsule of the day's events for those who don't want to be inundated, and a showcase for TV's best talent in terms of anchors, reporters, writers, producers, etc. So I keep watching 'em....

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Laurel, MD: Happy Holidays Tom! I just saw a clip of "The Star Wars Holiday Special" and agree it may be the worst holiday special ever. Do you have any favorites or non-favorites that come to mind?

Tom Shales: Well this is very tired but - I used to love to hate the Kathie Lee Gifford Christmas specials - they were so chintzy and she seemed not quite as gloriously mult-talented as she imagined. She was uni-talented, if that. Meanwhile enterprising video dealers on the web sell things like a Paul Lynde Halloween special (incredibly bizarre) and that high-camp mess of a musical-variety show starring the cast of The Brady Bunch - ugh! They MUST have done a Christmas special, but I don't recall having seen it. On the flip side, I always loved the Perry Como and Bing Crosby (of course) Christmas specials. Fifty or sixty years ago, Chrysler Theater (or whatever it was called) presented a musical version of "A Christmas Carol" with a score by Bernard Herrmann -- I've heard an audio recording but never seen a video of it. Too bad - it brought something new to that great old story.....

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Washington DC: Mr. shales,

Thank you for your writing over the years -- You are THE critic of our time! I wanted to follow up on something from last week's chat: The incessant (and insipid) morning show banter and kidding around between the hosts. When did this start? I don't remember. The Today show has become a disaster, Lauer,Roker, Meredith Viera "hamming it up" at every turn. Sheesh...did someone spike their coffee? What's so funny at 7 a.m.? I can't wait to see George Stephanoplolus get into the act at GMA...Guess he and the always hysterical Chris Cuomo will be a new "comedy" team. Seriously, did TV execs issue a dictum that all morning must insert awkward, forced humor into their programs? I say leave it to the professionals and just do your interviews...

Tom Shales: I couldnt agree more -- and I don't mean with what you said about me, tho it was certainly very nice of you. As for the happy-chatty morning teams, I don't know why this is the absolute model now for such shows, why they all think they're wits (they all know David Letterman started as a weatherman, so maybe they like to imagine talk shows in their future). It bothers me so much I don't watch the shows all that often -- maybe when they break in a new anchor or something. No you did not spell Stephanopoulos right but I can't spell Abbadabbdinejab and probably never will master it. Meanwhile I guess you and I are in the minority, for the shows are popular and millions tune in, perhaps delighted by the ghastly banter..

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SNL Christmas Special: Best part was watching with my son who hadn't seen some of the older "classic" skits, or the beloved Adam Sandler Hannukah song. Amazing how well the Bag o' Glass stands up against modern commercial offerings.

Tom Shales: Yes indeed. NBC is going to show the old sampler of SNL Christmas shows through the years in prime time -- oops, maybe that was last week, not this week. Sorry if so. The gang at SCTV did a totally bizarre Christmas special years ago that deserves recycling as a holiday perennial. John Candy dressed up as John Waters's famous diva Divine and sang "Santa Baby" or something along those lines. I still remember a Christmas show Dave Letterman did at NBC - he pretended to have a family (long before he had a son) and "sang" thru use of a singing double - oh it's too hard to explain. Larry Bud Melman read a story to kiddies; that was memorable, too........

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Silver Spring: Don't forget the old Andy Williams Christmas special. That was the epitome of fluff - snow, fireplace, singers - blech.

Tom Shales: Yeah, Andy was a little too lightweight and sleepy for me. I know Perry Como is always (or was always) kidded for his laid-back style bordering on laid-out ... but to me Andy Williams' singing was far more negligible, and did you know he could not sing ONE WORD of any song, even Moon River, without the lyrics on cue cards in front of him?

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Arlington, VA: Arnold Stang died and I remember watching him when I was a child on the old Milton Berle Show. About the only one from that era still around, I think, is Marvin Kaplan who was on something called Meet Millie in the early 1950's.

Tom Shales: Whoa, we must have turned the Way-Back machine to HyperSpace. Hyper-TIME? If you can remember Arnold Stang on the Milton Berle show, you are even older, or at least as old as, a certain TV critic we all know and love. Well - we all know and some tolerate. I think Stang arrived with the second incarnation of Berle, when he had lost the Texaco sponsorship and was brought to you by Buick. I can still sing the old jingle but lucky you - no audio on this line!

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East Lansing, Mich.: I thought Chris Cuomo left Good Morning America and moved over to 20/20?

Tom Shales: Was it Chris who did that, or the other guy? WHAT other guy? Sorry I am not being very helpful, am I? Maybe I am over eggnogg'd. You know what an excess of nog can do. But come to think of it -- you are correct sir, or madame, at least it seems you are, that Cuomo did go to 20/20 or another prime-time show, and he's the one replaced by the inimitable JuJu. I wonder where JuJu be? (Get it? More power to you if you do not)

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Alexandria, VA: Have you ever seen the 7:AM morning shows on Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision? They don't just banter and clown around - they hug, kiss, sing, dance, play with puppets, and really enjoy themselves (including the newscasters). It's like "Captain Kangaroo" for adults. Maybe that's what everyone wants at that hour - an extended TV "family," at your breakfast nook.

Tom Shales: Well for years CBS aired an hour of Captain Kangaroo where they now have their morning show, and at one time Walter Cronkite anchored the CBS morning program assisted by the Bil Baird puppets (and yes I think it was BIL with one 'L'). I seem to have a better memory for 40 years ago than for last week - a common problem as one rots - I mean, ages. I think the early-morning TV should above all be QUIET. I seem to be alone in this. The idea of a rock concert at 8:30 a.m., as on GMA and Today, strikes me as obscene and absurd.

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Olney, MD: Tom, can we still discuss the Golden Globe nominations? I cannot believe that John Noble was passed over for Best Supporting Actor for his amazing work as Dr. Walter Bishop in Fringe. He is without a doubt the best I've seen all year (and that even includes Michael Emerson as Benjamin Linus in Lost). And Elizabeth Mitchell as well deserved a nomination. What's wrong with the foreign press?

Tom Shales: You know, it isn't really the foreign "press." It's mainly a bunch of hangers-on and sycophants who turn out for the parties with the biggest food budgets. The Globes are not and never have been true measurements of worth -- it's just a big bash that gets bigger ratings than it used to because the stars started coming to the show, especially if they somehow seemed to know they were going to win (I'm not making any accusations of course). Nikke Fink in her Deadline Hollywood blog has the Globes' number and trashes them annually. Think of it as a star-studded special rather than a true awards program and you'll have a better time....... I think .......

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What About Robin Meade: Why would anyone watch the network morning shows when Robin Meade is reading the headlines on HLN? I don't have cable but watch her at the gym, while on the treadmill. I watch her with the sound off. I'm not the stalker type, but I could watch her all day. I find it difficult to look away when she's on screen.

But yeah, the weatherman and sports reporters on HLN try a little too hard to be chatty with Ms. Meade.

Tom Shales: Now now -- that sounds like the old Deborah Norville syndrome ... The late Brandon Tartikoff was asked if he had any ideas for morning programming on MSNBC years ago when it was just getting started; he said yes, put a girl in a bikini on an exercise bicycle and have her read the stock market quotations while she peddles. He was only half- spoofing, I think. Those who want their news truly global and without nonsense should check out the BBC world report on the BBC America channel, morning and evening......

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Atlanta, GA: What's your favorite Christmas episode of more recent times? I love the Bing Bang Theory Gift Basket/Lenard Nimoy episode.

Tom Shales: Very good. I don't have a favorite actually and am more interested in yours anyway. Larry David did a nutty Curb Your Enthusiasm in which he tried to hire actors from a "Living Nativity" display to perform at his house; that was funny and it was not sacrilegious as David can sometimes be. And that sweet-natured Stephen Colbert Christmas special from 2008 -- isn't that being repeated? --was delightful.......

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Kingston, Ont.: So I'm a major Mia Kirshner fan since way back in the day. I mean back to her playing Kitty in that "Anna Karenina]" film adaptation. I have her on my "Google News Alert" and she popped up yesterday as being upcoming guest star on "The Vampire Diaries."

I remember months ago reading a question to you on one of these live chats about how somebody was watching "The Vampire Diaries" because he or she was a major Jasmine Guy fan and she was a guest star on it and now I was kind of in the same boat in that I've never seen the show but want to know because of this casting news.

You made a neat a point that sometimes critics overlook the fact that much of the popularity of a TV series will depend not on scripts or direction or creativity or even originality, but on how telegenic and likable the performers are.

Just a bit fun that point stuck in my head for all these months and Mia Kirshner made me think of it again. It's a neat example of how good your analysis really it.

Tom Shales: Gosh, thanks. It is a personality-driven medium - which is why I think it's a little naive to judge an anchorperson on the basis of their journalism credentials. The job is more journalistic in nature than it used to be, but still doesn't really demand true journalistic talents. You have to look good and read well, basically -- tho the practice of making the anchors also the "managing editors" of their newscasts probably gets them more involved in content matters.... and they are all obliged to do interviews now and then to flex those particular muscles.......

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Jacksonville, Fla.: What's Chris Matthews like in real life? C'mon, spill.

Tom Shales: Charming and self-effacing guy. Short attention-span, like on TV. Given to extravagant enthusiams, likes and dislikes, so with him, you're likely to be either "The Greatest" or a nobody. He's likeable - what can I say?

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the Golden Globes - BUT: It will definitely be worth watching the GG telecast this year because Ricky Gervais is hosting. That is a very funny man.

Tom Shales: Very true. Even the promos he's done are at least amusing. And he can be counted on to make a bit o' fun of the whole ordeal, don't you think? The funnier he is, probably the less likely it is that he'll be asked back ....

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New Haven CT: Did you happen to catch The Sing Off? I loved every moment, from the wooden statuette of Nick Lachey to the nerdy boys from Tufts to the soppy, hard luck stories (acid reflux) to Ben Folds' fab glasses and jump on top of the piano during the LIVE finale. Thoughts?

Tom Shales: I watched it spottily -- it looked like it had that increasingly common signature-NBC aura: Tacky tacky

tacky. Unoriginal and desperate somehow. I will be

bad when the granddaddy of these shows, American Idol,

returns in February, no matter how irritating it can

be. And I loved Dancing with the Stars this past

season as always. I think it's a genuine kick to have

music, singing and dancing back in prime time - something

other than crime procedurals with cadaver close-ups.....

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Tuscaloosa, Ala.: But if ABC wanted to be just mean and business-first, couldn't they have take their biggest news dept star, George Stephanopoulos (who some weeks actually beets David Gregory on NBC's "Meet the Press"), and just put him in the evening news anchor?

Tom Shales: Well maybe they couldn't find a phone book for him to sit on. OH THAT's TERRIBLE, I apologize. I'll do a fat joke on myself to make up for it. Seriously, or close, I think George has his eyes on that job as surely as Hillary would like to be president, but he's not quite ready yet. Diane is in her early 60s and probably won't want to stay in the anchor-chair for more than five years, so that isn't long for Mr. S to wait (there, I didn't have to type his whole name)...

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SNL Christmas special: Yeah, they showed the classic skits last week in something called A Gilly Christmas or a A Very Gilly Christmas or something. Now, I'm admittedly out of the loop on SNL for the past couple years (last fall being the exception), but seeing Kristin Wiig play such an incredibly insipid and totally UNFUNNY character was even more painful since it was contrasted with such great past material. Painful. Did I mention it was painful?

Plus, they had a couple of TV Funhouses that they could've - but didn't - show, specifically the Charlie Brown Christmas spoof with the kids waving their arms and transforming all sorts of things - and, my favorite, the Fun with Real Audio in which Jesus can't find the spirit of Christmas here on earth until he sees a clip of Charlie Brown.

Tom Shales: Wow, I had forgotten Fun with Real Audio. I think that was one of many inspirations of Robert - Robert - oh darn, I cannot come up with his last name. He is the comic genius behind Triumph, the Insult-Comic Dog on the Conan O'Brien show. Robert - Robert - I know it will come to me after I sign off, sooner if a trusty reader sends it in, hint hint.... I think the last name begins with "S"

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minneapolis: Tom, I'm old enough to remember when Bing Crosby and David Bowie -- yes, David Bowie -- sang "Little Drummer Boy" together on Bing's special and it was shocking. At least my parents thought so.

Tom Shales: But -- pleasantly shocking? I think Bing was much cooler than he is often given credit for. I admit I idolized him and have always been sad I never got to interview or even meet him (whereas I think I encountered Hope five or six times - he wasn't exactly inaccessible). I was reminiscing the other day about Christmases long past when the "stars" (or their public-relations arms) sent out presents to TV critics and columnists. Every year I got a fruit cake from Steve and Jayne -- Allen and Meadows. And we used it for a door-stop as the old joke goes. No but it was still sweet. And speaking of sweet, Linda Ellerbee still sends out fudge, bless her heart. One year Bob Hope sent Jingle Bells on a leather strap, as if nabbed off one of Santa's reindeer, ho ho

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Just a Thanks to you & greetings of the season!: Just wanted to say a great big thanks to you for many years of insightful commentary on so many levels. The world is a more interesting place with you and your contributions, your sense of humor, down to earth-ness, cultural, artistic and political sensibilities and all that.

And please send regards to pookie (Lisa deMoraes) one of the other most charming and wittiest chatters/columnists/writers to join you in bringing us gifts this past year.

How lucky we are -- and especially the WP is -- to have you in this format as well -- it's always a treat! Looking forward to a new year of your columns and chats.

Tom Shales: Say, is this some kind of a trick?! No thank you, really, very much, and I certainly am in complete agreement on Lisa de Moraes, who is a great reporter and can write laugh- out- loud funny whenever she wants. Which is often, I am happy to say. You're very kind and generous -- I'd better not gush too much or they'll think you're my mom.......

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Washington, DC: The king is dead, long live the king. My default for all things meteorological used to be Bob Ryan (and that goes back to '76 when he and I were in Boston for -that- bilzzard). But I have had it with channel 4's habit of running the closed captioning OVER the crawl with the closings. Channels 7 and 9 havd figured this out - wherever the crawl is the captioning isn't. My new weather king is Topper Shutt.

Tom Shales: You bring up one of many production details that somebody at the stations OUGHT TO BE concerned with ... and you know how annoyed I am with all the unnecessary visual gingerbread they DO put at the bottom of the screen -- the invasive crud like promos promos promos that merely serve to muck up the screen. By the way, I often turn on the CC button for captions with movies and TV shows because the sound mixes are so bad that the music and effects can cover up the dialogue...

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Time to Trash 'Em: Tom, you've always been known for your takedowns of people on TV who deserve a good old-fashioned thrashing.

I'm wondering if you might consider publishing a review of the remaining Redskins telecasts.

Tom Shales: Aw, the poor lads. Haven't they suffered enough? And hasn't DC suffered enough, for that matter? I am not an avid football follower but I am well aware of how closely the Redkin record correlates with the town's overall mood ... and when they're in the dumper, like now, people are generally grumpier and more testy. So they owe it to the community to shape the heck up.......

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Jami Floyd to MSNBC: Hey I just noticed Jami Floyd (TV lawyer commentator) recently of CourTV (or that horrid new name TruTV) is now on at MSNBC noon news time today.

I think that's a great 'get' for MSNBC -- CNN/CourtTV's loss -- and probably related to Dan Abrams also formerly of Court TV who also brought Savannah Guthrie from CTV to MSNBC. The reporters/moderators of Court TV have been mainly underrated talents over the years. If we're going to have lawyers on TV, we need more Ricki Kleimans, Jean Casares and Jami Floyds and I for one am glad to see several of the talented talent from Court TV being spread around.

Tom Shales: Whoa I am spinning from all the names..... Who went where so that whats-her-name could be with whom? I'll read this one again later.....

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herndon, va: Mr. S: Although quite young when Milton Berle was on - sponsored by Texaco ("You can trust your car to the man who wears the star")- I remember one live blooper with the 4 Texaco "gas station men" (one must explain in the old days there were several men available at a station to fill your tank, clean your windshield, etc). The "designated speaker" of the 4 for that show tried to introduce Milton, completely blew his lines, and the others had to try and cover up. No doubt the poor man's last job on TV.

Tom Shales: I loved my UncleMiltie but he messed up when he hosted Saturday Night Live during the first 5 famous years. Lorne Michaels was wary of having him on, but Belushi insisted that Berle deserved respect. Well, he drove them all nuts with his "ideas" for the sketches. He even planted a guy to throw a pan backstage and make a loud crash so Berle could "ad lib" the line, "Sounds like NBC dropped another show." He also tried to arrange a standing ovation but Lorne said no dice. Lorne hated the show that resulted and never let it be re-aired, but you can see it in all its ignominy in the recently released Complete Set of Season Four shows ... they're putting them all out on DVD you know....

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Princess Diane: I used to have the same problem with Alexandra Steele when she did the weather for Channel 7 (I think). After her segment in the morning I had to turn to TWC to find out what the weather was going to be. Can't do that anymore because she went to TWC. Luckily there is no one currently broadcasting in the morning that has the same effect on me.

Tom Shales: Thank you, Princess. Remember Louie Allen, who gave viewers a "fist" every day? How about the New York City weatherman who was fired after saying -- On the Air -- that a rape victim should just have "laid back and enjoyed it." Imagine, incredible, but it really happened.....

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Hartford, CT: Jay Leno is always gripping that the other networks won't let their stars on his new show but last night Alec Baldwin was on Letterman. Why wasn't Baldwin on Leno or Conan? Thanks. Happy Holidays!

Tom Shales: Gripping? Or griping? I teaste. I mean TEASE. Leno is a whiny character, let's face it. As for Baldwin, he is a very independent and headstrong guy; I can't imagine that network executives have any luck in bossing him around.

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SNL writer guy: Robert Smigel

Tom Shales: THANK YOU! Smigel. Of course. I am smacking myself in the forehead right now....

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Athens, GA: Tom, I tried to watch The Rockettes Holiday Special on PBS Saturday night but could only make it half way through because of the CONSTANT editing. Every 5 seconds they were constantly moving to a different shot, many times to the dancer's faces and very rarely the entire shot stage. Why do they do this?

Tom Shales: Hello Athens, thank you for your patience. You have touched on a pet-peeve of mine, which is the way TV directors shoot concerts and other stage events, obviously including this Radio City Music Hall special. I don't know why, especially now that large-screen TV's are extremely common, they can't stick to wide shots a bit more so we see the show as the audience in the theater sees it. But no, they have to cut cut cut cut cut as you say, bouncey-bouncey all over the place to show off their 47 cameras, including the remote jobs on wires that hover over the crowd. I would love to do a time-clock on one of these shows to see how much time the performers are on the screen vs. how much time the director gives to members of the audience -- reaction shots are another of my betes noirs. (pardon my just-barely-French). I fear we face a losing battle; the style is almost set in concrete now, nobody seems to break with it. You'd think public TV would at least have the imagination to try something new , and better, but nooooooooooo

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Alexandria, VA: Speaking of the blizzard, just how much speaking of the blizzard is it possible for a human to endure? After 30+ straight hours of channel 9 reporters interviewing people about how big a mess the snow is, don't we sort of get the picture already?

Tom Shales: Oh, I know! And I fully expected another day-long marathon on melting. You know, close-ups of snow slowly turning to mush, drip drip drip.....

Still, let us end on a happy note: Happy holidays and best of luck for a better year ahead. It's just GOT to be.....

Thank you...

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