In her review of Rachel Maddow's new MSNBC show, the NYT's Alessandra Stanley makes a very shrewd observation about the state of TV punditry in general:
One of the oddities of an era that is considered so partisan and polemical is how insulated political expression really is on television. Sunday talk shows like “Meet the Press” sometimes bring in two opponents who sit side by side and disagree in turn, but the camera quickly moves on to regular panelists, journalists and columnists, who cozily take turns making stand-alone pronouncements. (One of the few shows that fosters feisty ideological debate, “The McLaughlin Group,” seems frozen in amber.)
On cable news programs an anchor usually interviews guests of opposing views, from afar, by satellite, each commentator isolated in a box, arguing across a split screen. One reason “The View” has become destination viewing in this election season could be that panelists of different viewpoints argue face to face and eye to eye. Good debate isn’t just dueling talking points, it’s a clash of personalities and ideology in the same room.
I've made countless appearances on these types of shows over the years, and it is absolutely true that having all participants in the same room lends a palpable zip to the discussions. It's far easier--and more fun--to sit around a table arguing with one another than to sit staring through blinding lights into a dark camera lens. Having everyone face-to-face also cuts down on those awkward timing issues, in which people in different studios often wind up talking over one another or trying to jump into a discussion just as the host is moving on to the next topic.
I've never been entirely sure whether the heads-in-boxes format is used--often even with on-air guests at the same bureau--because it helps disguise when one guest or host happens to be in another location, because it helps hosts keep control of the debate, or whether research shows that viewers actually dig that whole Brady Bunch-opener look. But I do think it makes for worse conversation.