10/03/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
ONE RECENT MORNING, A WELLHEELED, middle-aged stranger turned to Bob Berkowitz on a New York City subway train, pointed to a pair of attractive young women and said, "See those twins? That's my sexual fantasy." What do you reply to a conversational gambit like that? Berkowitz, 44, just said, "Well, they're very pretty."
Such encounters go with the territory when you're the host of CNBC's Real Personal, a live call-in TV show that features guests ranging from swingers and hookers to married couples and sex therapists, all discussing once-taboo topics such as orgasms, vibrators, oral sex and S&M. Which may help explain why Real Personal has become real popular. (More than 500,000 viewers tune in seven nights a week, making it CNBC's top-rated series.) But Beavis and Butt-head wouldn't think...it was heh-heh...cool. "We talk about sex the way adults should," says Berkowitz, "without being salacious, voyeuristic or adolescent about it."
Disdaining the "verbal food fights" that he says characterize such daytime fare as The Montel Williams Show and The Ricki Lake Show, Berkowitz eschews a studio audience, which he believes can be too judgmental. "I don't know how anyone is still having sex after watching these shows," Berkowitz says.
"A lot of people could do a show like Real Personal and take a smarmy or snide approach," adds Berkowitz's CNBC colleague Tom Snyder (soon to depart for CBS). "But Bob really sees himself as a journalist trying to elicit information."
In fact that's what he is. Berkowitz's résumé includes reporting stints for CNN, ABC and NBC. But on Real Personal, sometimes the guests can get, well, too personal—like the dominatrix whose slave was so nervous on-cam-era "she had to slap him a couple of times," says Berkowitz. "The guy calmed down, but my eyes bugged out." Or the executive secretary who, while telling how she liked to have sex with the blinds open, suddenly showed the host, à la Sharon Stone, that she wasn't wearing panties. "Fortunately the cameraman shot her waist-high," says the host, who coolly steered the talk to his guest's pre-interview disclosure that she had been sexually abused as a child. "I asked her," says Berkowitz, "if she thought that her exhibitionism was a way to regain power—a way to say, in effect, 'You can look, but you can't touch.' "
Berkowitz credits his clinical objectivity to his parents. His father, Dr. Bernard Berkowitz, his late mother, Gertrude, and his stepmother, Mildred Newman, were all psychologists. Indeed, his father and Dr. Newman coauthored the 1971 best-seller How to Be Your Own Best Friend. "They are often called the grandpa and grandma of the self-help movement," Berkowitz says proudly. "Their book is a classic that still holds up."
Berkowitz grew up in Great Neck, N.Y., with his older brother Bill, now a computer programmer; he himself went on to major in speech communications and minor in psychology at the University of Denver. Graduating in 1972, Berkowitz eventually landed a job with the Associated Press Radio Network in San Francisco. There he met a UPI radio reporter, Merrilee Cox, and wed the competition three years later.
A handsome six-footer, Berkowitz segued smoothly into TV He was CNN's man at the White House during President Reagan's first term and in 1982 moved to New York City as an ABC News correspondent. Three years later he was home watching a Today show segment called "Today's Woman." "Suddenly," he says, "I had an epiphany. Why wasn't anyone doing anything about today's man?" Berkowitz soon convinced Today's producers he was the man for that job, and for the next three years he presented a male perspective on issues such as birth control, rape and abortion. In 1992, CNBC wanted to know if Berkowitz (then hosting a political talk show) would tackle Real Personal. "It's grammatically incorrect," he remembers thinking, "but it's a job."
Separated since last fall from Merrilee, Berkowitz lives alone in an antique-filled, two-bedroom loft in Soho and dates regularly, though never—so far—any of the women who write him each week. Someday, he says, he'd like to remarry and have kids. Some women, he says with a chuckle, are intrigued by what he does for a living; others, unfortunately, "are intimidated by the fact that I do a sex show."
Not that they should be. Despite his televised expeditions to the frontiers of lust, Berkowitz is strictly an observer, not some raunchy fellow traveler. "When it comes to sex," he says, "I am middle of the road."
MONTE WILLIAMS in New York City