Somewhere in the Talk Show Audience Print E-mail

342685_Friday20Kitty(San Diego Union-Tribune August 12, 1993)

"Welcome, everyone, to 'Audience Survey,' the TV talk show that talks about TV talk shows and their audiences. I'm Chip Pitts, your host for 'Audience Survey,' and before we begin, a few questions. How many here have felt terrible watching the floods in the Midwest—rising waters, melting levees, fleeing families?"

A woman sitting next to me raises her arm eagerly. Many others do too.

"I watched it, but I didn't feel that bad," I say to her. "Maybe I didn't watch enough."

"My God," she says, "the more I watched the worse I felt."

Chip looks at his clipboard. "OK. How many here are satisfied members of the Democratic Party?"

The woman and I exchange head-shaking noes.

One hand goes up, some Yuppie.

"The GOP?"

Same hand.

"The NRA?"

A hundred hands.

"Keep them up now," says Chip. "OK, Ross Perot's United We Stand America?"

Another hundred join the arms of the NRA.

"How many are members of the TV audience that dutifully watches at least one talk show a day?"

Every hand in the studio goes up, as far as I can see. We crane our necks to see if it's unanimous. It is. Applause erupts.

Chip says, probably with a wry, can-you-top-that grin to the big camera I'm having trouble seeing around, "We'll be right back."

"Gee," I say to the woman, "it took long enough to get onto this show. I sure hope it's as good as they say. This is a talk show, right?"

"It is."

"You know I was on Jane Whitney the other day and I think she's great at giving her audience members a chance to question the guests without interrupting. Don't you agree?"

"I do. Not like that motor-mouth Montel Williams. When I was on Montel, he wouldn't let me ask my question. He had to interpret it for me and he still got it wrong. Or 'Geraldo.' When I was on 'Geraldo,' he came into the audience and asked me how much I weighed, the creep."

"That is a very special moment when you comment or ask a question on national TV," I say. "You don't want the host lousing you up. You want to sound halfway intelligent. Do you remember when Ed Sullivan used to say, 'Somewhere in our audience tonight . . . ,' and he'd identify the famous person, motion him to stand and acknowledge the applause. But the person didn't have to say anything. Not like today."

"Amen," the woman says.

"A lot of people don't know that the only way we're listened to in America is by being interviewed in the audience."

"We're back," shouts Chip. "A few more survey questions. How many here have had the time in the last month to read a book?"

Only the Yuppie's arm goes up.

"How about a magazine article?"

A smattering of arms.

A woman asks, "Does that include TV Guide?"



"Of course it does. How many recognize the name, Neil Postman?"


"The media critic who once said that the purpose of commercial media is not to entertain but to deliver audiences to advertisers?"

Still no hands.

"Well he's our guest today on 'Audience Survey,' and you'll meet him in just a minute. OK. Who has a question? We have time for one quick . . ."

A man stands.

Chip runs the mike to him.

"If you pause to look at a necklace for sale on the shopping channel, you know, pause just for a gander while you're flipping through, does that mean you're part of the audience 'Audience Survey' surveys for watching the shopping channel?"

"Audience, what do you think?"

The woman and I exchange head-shaking noes again.


We look hard at each other. Is this a trick question or what?

"The answer is, of course you are! Now, here he is, Neil Postman."

We clap politely, although I suspect the whistles have been dubbed.

"Neil," Chip says. "What's the most stimulating show on TV nowadays?"

"That's easy, Chip," says Neil. " 'Talk Soup.' I'm sure everyone here knows that it's a daily program which shows highlights of, and pokes fun at, the talk shows. Recently, 'Talk Soup' broadcast for the first time ever in front of a live audience. Now, stay with me, Chip. The audience on 'Talk Soup' was watching the host show them, the audience in the studio, and us, the audience at home, clips of shows with their own audiences, both in the studio and at home, which by my count is four audiences. Chip, remember, not as people think to entertain them, although that does happen, but to deliver all those audiences to the advertisers. Chip, when talk shows can deliver audiences at home and in the studio who watch shows of audience-watching audiences to the advertisers, we've reached the end of privacy."

"That could be, Neil. And when we come back we'll ask how our audience feels about the end of privacy. OK? We'll be right back."

More crackling applause.

The spotlights scan our rows while the camera rigs like Brontosaurus necks pan our faces.

I smile at the woman beside me. I can't get too friendly, though, because I've got to come up with an intelligent comment before Chip runs the mike out to the audience.

Thank God we have the 2 1/2 minutes it takes to sell Volvos and dog food.

Think, think.

What does he mean, the end of privacy?