Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett and Senators Joseph I. Lieberman and Sam Nunn think that daytime talk shows are "cultural rot," in Bennett's words, "the popular culture version of red-light districts."

And now we know what talk-show hosts and studio executives think of Bennett and his friends. "They're a complete pain in the ass," says Joel Berman, president of distribution at Paramount Domestic Television.

Well, glad we cleared the air. The TV crowd responded yesterday in a panel discussion at the meeting of the Television Critics Association in Pasadena, California, after months of efforts by the politicians to get advertisers to pull sponsorship of the shows.

Berman acknowledged that, "It's having a chilling effect on advertisers. I do not think we're losing money, but some advertisers have decided, 'I don't need the aggravation.' "

But two hosts promised to stand up for their rights to bring left-handed-tranvestites-who-love-too-much or any other human subgroup onto their shows. "Just because [the guests] yell a little--because they're a bit press-unsavvy and they're not white, middle class and inside the Beltway--doesn't mean they don't belong on TV," said Gordon Elliott, host of The Gordon Elliott Show.

Rolonda Watts, host of Rolonda, said that, "If I put Ozzie and Harriet on, people would go, 'Oh, please, Rolonda.' "

Ratings are in fact down for afternoon talk shows from last year. Some panelists attributed that to a natural falloff from the ratings frenzy brought on by the O.J. Simpson trial.

But Paramount Telepictures Productions President Jim Paratore, producer of the Rosie O'Donnell Show, thinks that the success of his new show portends quieter afternoons ahead on the tube. "Rosie will revitalize interest in the softer format," he said.

Berman agreed that talk-format producers had read the failure of some of last year's new and over-the-top shows, such as those hosted by Tempestt Bledsoe and Carnie Wilson, as a sign to cool it. Advertisers, station managers and viewers reacted negatively, he said, and as a result, the talk format is much more varied today. "We have shows that cover the gamut from Jerry Springer to Regis & Kathie Lee."

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