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The Future is Only a Phone Call Away

Naaman Zhou found enlightenment and it was only five dollars per minute.

Naaman Zhou found enlightenment and it was only five dollars per minute.

When the witching hour comes to your digital TV, instead of ghouls, phantoms and the traditional apparitions, you can find Mel. If you stay up late enough, re-jig your channel list and power into the upper frequencies, you can shuttle out from the orbit of the traditional networks, and land on the wrong side of the televisual tracks. Here, the resolution can never exceed 576; programming can, by law, never include scripted drama, sports or comedy.  We are in the realm of datacasting, a special second-tier of television designed only for infomercials. The side-ripples on the wavelength.

Mel is the host of Psychic TV, the jewel of channel TV4ME, part call-in show, part shop window.

Psychic TV plays four weeks a night, from 11pm to 2am. Calls cost $5.45 a minute. On-screen clairvoyants sit and smile for three hours without breaks. Sloth, much like self-awareness and shame, is a sin that seems to be contractually outlawed.

Here’s a typical Thursday night. Mel has her dark hair in impeccable waves, sequins on her top. In the ten minutes where she is tasked, alone, to open the show, she seems not to breathe. It’s bewitching. Her Atlas-like attempt to hide the absence of co-host, production values and content involves bizarre throwaways to her mum every half-minute.

When she inexplicably replaces the phrase “in love” with “pregnant”, she laughs, shrugs and says “I don’t know how to backtrack on that one so I’m just going to move on”. Phobic of empty air, the approach is a scattergun insouciance, a sea of hit-and-miss.

Mel is the sparkplug on this show’s stuttering engine, and once warmed up, she is joined by her first partner, Raelene. The psychic readings begin. Raelene shows us her first email question. Unnervingly, it’s been printed in all caps, a full stop on every word, like a serial killer’s telegram. HI. I. WOULD. LIKE. A. READING. ABOUT. MY. FAMILY.

The next caller is worried about a fearful presence. “Something strange happened to I [sic], I heard a loud crash and saw the picture that was on the wall was on the bench. Is there a spirit in my home?”

Raelene pounces. “Look,” she says, “I’m going to say yes immediately here.” She visibly shivers. “I can sense a spirit through your message”, she tells us. Another shiver comes with a small vocalised “ooh”. Now Raelene looks sheepish. “That sometimes happens, but it doesn’t always happen in public”, she tells Mel, like she’s just farted at a dinner party.

She asks the caller if anybody new has been in her home, either physically or otherwise. “You may find,” she says, “that it’s somebody connecting via the internet. Some people may be going ‘wow how can that happen?’, but you know, through energy it can”.

This sounds absurd—it is. But if it sounds cynical or money-grubbing, then the waters are less clear. Television psychics have a stained association with exploitative ‘channelers’ like John Edwards—cold readers who feed on personal tragedy like some kind of grief-leech. But while calls to Psychic TV are exorbitantly expensive, it’s mostly agony aunting, blasé life-coaching done terribly. When one man calls up for business advice, the psychic spends a minute pretending to have a spirit in her ear, mumbling messy phrases and exclaiming “thank you spirit”.  But her consultation ends in the limpest possible way – “just keep going with your business, it’ll turn out alright”.

The atmosphere is disarmingly cliquey. Callers are greeted with the same amiable platitudes you hear from law students outside Taste (“Amanda, how I’ve missed you! I’m not on Facebook anymore so I’m so cut off, but I hope you had a great time on your break”). When another regular posts on the Facebook page, Mel looks to the camera and personally thanks her. I can’t help but feel these people are paying for virtual hugs.

This is breakfast TV’s faux-chumminess taken to its midnight extreme. Most viewers are personally known to our hosts, and those who ask questions are always complimented on their appearance and hair.

I decide to call up and unload my neuroses. “I’m 20 years old and I’m struggling to be taken seriously as a journalist,” I explain, “No-one replies to my emails. I have to resort to stunts and writing about TV shows nobody’s ever heard of”.

Liz from London is unfazed by my shitty attempt at humour. “Ok,” she says, “Let’s have a look at why they’re not replying to your emails. Obviously you don’t have the right experience?”

“Yeah, probably”.

“But could you be taken in as an apprentice, or a trainee and get that experience? Have you applied to be a trainee?”

I stammer that yes, I write for my student newspaper but no, I haven’t applied for any internships.

“But without training,” she says, “it’s going to be difficult for anybody to employ you”.

I trail off as I feel the conversation getting away from me. What started as a prank call is rapidly becoming a typical exchange with my mother. All I can do is nod as the truth-bombs fly in. My psychic is telling me to get an internship. “Journalism”, she says, “is not something that you can just get-up-and-go and do it.”

As Liz outlines her take on the current media landscape, I desperately cut across her—“Thanks Liz, but can you give me some spiritual guidance at all?”

“Well…if there’s a level of fear in you, you can call on the Archangel Michael.”

I pause. “Yeah I guess I do have a lot of fear”. Liz agrees. “I’m not actually very Christian though, does that matter?”

“Oh it’s got nothing to do with Christianity! The angelic realm has nothing to do with Christianity.”

Chastened, I thank Liz for her time and hang up.

Like the TV show then, my one-on-one interaction is unsatisfyingly wholesome. Liz didn’t even try to psychobabble me until I specifically ask her to. Instead of dragging it out, at one point she actually told me I had to stop in two minutes.

Maybe that’s the trick. On TV these psychics are the patron saints of hyper-banter and the segue. They’re fallible and friendly and always complimentary. On the phone they’re disappointingly practical. I don’t feel exploited, even though I have just spent around $25 for a five-minute conversation. I still haven’t applied for any internships. 

Illustration by Mackenzie Nix.