We watch... so you don't have to.

Is the Caller There?

You people are idiots.

No, not you, of course -- the folks with the good taste to visit TeeVee on a regular basis. You're the exceptions. But as for everyone else, they're a bunch of pinheads.

If you want proof, just turn on the TV and wait for the callers.

Call-in programs used to be the province of talk radio, and for good reason. Say what you will about the dulcet sounds of Bill from Oxnard calling up his local DJ to blather on about the dangers of nuclear proliferation... but it just doesn't make for good TV.

That changed around the late '70s. And like all ill-conceived notions that sounded like pretty good ideas at the time -- daytime talk shows, white-haired authority figures, Marlo Thomas -- the concept of viewers calling in to TV shows can be blamed solely upon Phil Donahue.

To think there was once a time when I actually looked forward to hearing Phil Donahue pull his cordless microphone away from his yammering audience members, look up at the ceiling, and shout, "Is the Caller there?" That was exciting stuff. For all I knew, The Caller could be a mysterious and exciting guest who was calling in by phone to lend extra insight to a topic.

In reality, the Caller was a Donahue viewer whose question for Phil and his guests had been carefully screened by a crack team of producers. There were only a few lucky callers on any given show. And frankly, the Callers were a good break from the idiot questions of the Donahue audience.

Nowadays, the Caller is always there. The cult of the Caller has grown expansively since the Donahue days; now whole shows have been built up around the Caller. The idea is simple: Viewers are sick and tired of being force-fed opinions from the same parade of talking heads--from both sides of the journalistic aisle. We're tired of hearing Sam Donaldson interview Defense Secretary William Perry. We're tired of Cokie Roberts grilling Trent Lott. We're fed up with George Will... pretty much all the time.

Under no circumstances do we want to see our local news anchorman spend time deposing a local college professor about an obscure topic related to today's top story. We want to hear from the people! Vox populi! What to the people have to say?

You can probably guess what the people have to say. A whole lot o' nothin'.

Because frankly, if the people out there in the vast viewing public had a lot to say, they'd probably already be on TV saying it, not sitting by their phones alternating calls to talk shows, trying to be the 14th caller so they can win the trip to Utica.

I know, I know. As a proper '90s media-savvy guy, I'm supposed to want my reality unfiltered. I'm supposed to get off on audience participation, town hall meetings, and the like. I'm supposed to want to hear Stan in Oakland asking a convoluted question about Family Leave that essentially boils down to, "Can I get paid time off if I or any member of my family has a hangover?" I'm supposed to want to hear Dave in St. Louis opine on the finer points of NAFTA. I'm supposed to get all gooey when President Clinton pulls an Oprah and begins running around a Town Hall meeting with a cordless mike, pestering Fred in Dayton and Mary in Sandusky for their thoughts on race relations. And most of all, I'm supposed to be breathless waiting to hear just how much Sally in Dubuque thinks the Today show's Matt Lauer is a hottie.

Larry King Live is the show that always drives me up a tree. Now, Larry King's not exactly the most brilliant interviewer in all the land. He pitches softballs with the best of 'em. But every now and then, especially when he's interviewing an intriguing personality that he's actually familiar with (in other words, 3 or 4 times a year), Larry will get on a roll. His interviews with David Letterman are priceless, and a few months back he spent an hour with Dan Rather--Dan Rather!--that was a laugh-riot.

And then Larry ruins it all. "Up next," he announces with glee, "Your phone calls!"

"Oh, please, Larry," Letterman said once. "No phone calls."

You'd think Larry would learn. When he's on the line with a caller, every other sentence out of Larry's mouth is, "Do you have a question, sir?"

This is a disease spread by talk radio, a world infested with megadittos and sports smack and morning zoos, a world where the relative quality of telephone lines is the only way to differentiate professionals paid to be idiots and idiot volunteers who do it for free.

And yet someone who works in television, a fundamentally visual medium, decided that listening to the disembodied voices of Joe and Jane Sixpack while viewers stared at the blank faces of the on-air talent was a good idea. Larry King shouts out, "Tuscaloosa, Hello!" and then we stare into the eyes at the seventysomething Iron Horse of Broadcasting for several minutes while someone on the end of a crackling phone line tells an incomprehensible anecdote that's vaguely related to the topic at hand while several dozen babies cry in the background and their call-waiting clicks incessantly.

After all, what qualifies someone to be a talk-show caller? A redial button.

It should be easy enough to avoid the onslaught of call-in programs. Donahue has gone off to that big daytime talk show in the sky. And turning off Larry King's yak-fest once the festivities begin to flag is no great challenge. Just ask one of Larry's dozen or so ex-wives.

But it's not easy at all to avoid call-in shows any more, simply because they're multiplying faster than Star Trek spin-offs on UPN. Flip by C-SPAN and you're likely to hear a cranky senior citizen from Sarasota hectoring a bemused journalist about media bias. Surf over to MTV and troubled Generation Xers are divulging explicit tales of sexual hang-ups to Loveline's leering hosts. And of course, Fox News Channel is lousy with calls from viewers.

Hell, Fox News Channel is simply lousy.

It's all gotten out of hand, this call-in show madness, and someone has to do something about it. Take away Larry King's toll-free number. Unplug C-SPAN's only microphone. Phone up Loveline's Dr. Drew and ask him if his refrigerator's running. Anything.

But I'm sure you folks have plenty to say on this subject, and we look forward to hearing your calls, coming up next. And remember... the 14th caller wins a trip to Utica! Our lines are open!


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