TV

Talk is cheap, particularly on television, where a host, a guest and a couple of chairs can easily fill an hour. Elizabeth Birch aspires to do better than that, though her success rate is decidedly mixed. Birch & Co., her new show, bows Friday on here!, which bills itself as America's first gay television network. (Comcast customers in Indianapolis have the channel available through Video on Demand; the Web site is heretv.com.) The former executive director of Human Rights Campaign, a gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender advocacy group, uses the hour to discuss gay issues, but in an almost entirely non-confrontational way. Even when the guest is Pat Buchanan, the tone never rises beyond mild disagreement.

Give Birch credit for this: She starts off with great guests. Rosie O'Donnell inaugurates the show, followed by Buchanan (Aug. 26) and congressman/civil rights activist John Lewis (Sept. 2). Future shows will feature Al Gore, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingram, and Chris Matthews.

The question for those future shows is, will she use the time better? The O'Donnell and Lewis interviews are absolute lovefests. Fun, generally, and sometimes engaging, particularly when she's dishing with O'Donnell about Queer As Folk or listening to Lewis push gay-rights activists to adopt the same kind of non-violent disobedience blacks used to win equal rights.

But still: "Just for the record, you're a fantastic parent," Birch tells O'Donnell. "You're just a miracle to me, just an amazing human being," she says to Lewis. Even Buchanan, with whom Birch has serious disagreements, is greeted and sent off respectfully. Not that she should yell at Buchanan, but viewers will be disappointed that she doesn't make her case for equality for gay rights more convincing and clear.

Birch also needs to control her tendency to "nod out loud" - she often interrupts with "mmm-hmmms" or interjects little asides while her interview subject is speaking. ("Right, right.") But she has a good forum, excellent guests and a set of potentially provocative topics that are at the heart of today's culture wars. She can, should, and must do better.

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