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TV's Party Line

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NO one can accuse television networks of giving audiences the silent treatment when it comes to opinions and points of view. Already 25 talk shows - give or take a couple - are available to fill the TV day with gab. Now there's more. As of this week, ``America's Talking,'' a 24-hour, all-talk cable network, has opened its mouth for business.

The shows scheduled so far have been provocatively titled. ``Pork'' will concentrate on how the government is spending the taxpayer-viewer's money. ``Break a Leg'' will chat about show-biz celebrities. What else? It gets even less subtle. ``Am I Nuts?'' is the not-so-delicate name for an hour in which psychologists will analyze and soothe overstressed callers.

Talk is cheap, not only in the philosophical sense but also when it comes to cost-efficient television production. An entire network of talk shows was probably inevitable. Still, a niche filled with nothing but babble raises questions.

How much talk is too much? Are there limits to turning the world into one nonstop hot line? And this isn't even counting talk radio - some 850 shows - or all the Internet and Prodigy online debates, idealized as a hacker's version of town meetings but getting a bit rude and disorderly and in need of the electronic equivalent of Emily Post.

That leads to another question: Are talk shows disseminating primarily information and reasoned opinions in the interests of a democratic electorate? Or do these highly volatile formats all too often serve as a ``support system for scandal,'' in the words of one Village Voice critic, setting an agenda that emphasizes personalities rather than issues and inclines toward simplistic and extreme views favoring belligerence over balance?

The ``America's Talking'' network should be given its chance to speak up. At this point, it is certainly talking a good game, with a promise to revive the art of ``conversation'' - a nice, civilized word precluding, it may be hoped, a shrill obsession with O.J. Simpson, Paula Jones, and other current talk-show feeding frenzies. With hand on heart, the new network has assured its potential 10 million viewers, ``We're going to bring television back to where it used to be.''

This vow may prompt veteran viewers to travel back even further and remember the pleasures of talk before television was even invented. You could build a pretty lively talk show just debating that.


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