"I think a lot of the criticism is based on men, mostly, in their 30s and 40s mostly, measuring themselves against me." -- Geraldo Rivera

It's a pain to have to rethink a fixed tenet of one's belief system, but rethink I must. You may recall that last winter I strapped myself into a shudder-proof Barcalounger and conducted a five-day watchathon of two famous daytime talk shows, the idea being to settle once and for all the question: Who's schlockier, Phil or Oprah? It was a good matchup. Content- wise, Phil delivered a strong double punch with shows on The North American Man-Boy Love Association Controversy and Sleeping Disorders, the latter featuring a narcoleptic poodle named Vern who actually konked out on camera. Oprah answered with Housewife Communists, Women Who Kill and Society Ladies, during which an u berstupid socialite named Sugar Rautbord described how she gets her rich friends to identify with the plight of poor people. "I ask them to imagine themselves driving around in a limo and not being able to find a hotel. Then I say, 'Now you have some idea of what it's like being a bag lady.' "

Who could choose just one? Ultimately, I gave Oprah the nod because she once confessed, on air, to having eaten a 12-pack of frozen hot-dog buns lubed with Log Cabin syrup. This made Phil's standard confession ("I was a typical Eisenhower-era male chauvinist!") seem pale, and it made Oprah champ. Unfortunately, it also made me smug and lazy. Satisfied that I had found the truth, I tuned out audience-participation talk TV for months. That's how "he" sneaked up on me. It happened late one Wednesday several weeks ago. I was aimlessly flipping channels when I came upon the familiar trappings of the Aud-Partic genre: a jagged pan of a largely female audience in a small studio set, wide aisles giving the host easy access to kibitzers, applause, upbeat theme music . . .

"What?" I said. "Phil or Oprah at night?"

"Ladies and gentlemen . . . Geraldo!"

Oops, there went my rigid hierarchy. I turned off the set, not even bothering to sample Geraldo's treatment of "a topic that needs to be brought out in the open": Siamese twins connected at the head. My feeling was, why bother quantifying what is obvious to anyone even faintly familiar with his work? Having been a faithful Geraldo Rivera tracker since 1972, I knew that the instant he decided to invade Phil and Oprah's turf, the battle was over. He will outschlock, outshock and otherwise outdo them. He will find the boundaries of taste and the point beyond which semi-needless discussion of quasi-issues involving very odd people becomes almost . . . mystical, and he'll head for that territory with a cam-crew . . .

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What's needed right now is a brief Geraldo career review, because as I run around chattering breathlessly about this new watershed in TV history, I'm finding an alarming blase'ness about his appearance on the tragi-blab scene. "Geraldo Rivera," people say. "Isn't he the loser who broke into Al Capone's secret vault and found nothing inside?" Yes, but he's much, much more than that. The key to understanding Geraldo -- a very talented guy who unfortunately is now given to saying things like "We are on this Earth to slay dragons or die trying!" -- is to break his career into phases. Phase 1 (1970 to 1974) is the part everybody forgets. During this time Geraldo, an unknown local TV reporter in New York City, rose to national prominence with his expose' of the medieval conditions at the Willowbrook State School for the mentally retarded on Staten Island. The acclaim, though deserved, was a mite ecstatic. An Esquire writer noted "the familiar black Charlemagne hair . . . the sense of cleanliness, as though he showered hourly," and said: "When he walks a Manhattan street, it is as if George M. Cohan had really been Puerto Rican and the statue of him in Times Square had been given life." Phase 2 (Everything Since Then) hasn't been all bad, but has been tainted by tragic, Phase 1-caused Delusions of Grandeur. "This image of mine as a spotless white knight is basically true," Geraldo told Esquire back then, "but I am human. Look, ever since the {Nixon} resignation I constantly hear I'm running for President. Maybe I could be talked into it. But I am thirty-one, at forty-five I will be a young man. I'm just flexing my muscles, just beginning to reach twenty million people a show. It would be a cop-out, now, to abandon television."

Hmm, okay, fade out, fade in, and we rejoin Geraldo at his nadir of excellence, lower even than the Capone fiasco: last December's syndicated special, "American Vice: The Doping of a Nation." This was the one in which Geraldo's passion for "getting down and dirty" went too far. In cooperation with police in Miami, Houston and San Jose, Geraldo arranged for three live on-camera drug busts, the first ever on national TV. There was chaos aplenty, especially during the Houston bust. As Geraldo intoned dramatically from his studio ("Harris County Sheriff Johnny Klevenhagen is going in on a duplex, where an alleged pimp and prostitute -- a dude and his lady, real pros -- are supplying truckers speed"), Sheriff K and his men knocked down the door with a battering ram, rushed in, shouted "Put it on the wall!," cuffed a suspect and confiscated some drugs and pistols. Unfortunately, the cuffee, a woman named Terry Rouse, was neither the dude nor his lady. (They weren't around.) She was the "house painter." This and problems with the San Jose bust prompted one newsman to call Geraldo "a non-news reporter." Geraldo's measured response:

"Non-news reporter! This {bleeping} punk who has one one-hundredth of my experience . . . I've done 3,000 stories, I've won 10 Emmy Awards, I won the George Foster Peabody -- "

Enough already. We get the message. Passion. Getting down and dirty. Award-winning coverage. Schlocky remotes. That's what you'll get on "Geraldo." Still, in fairness to Phil and Oprah, I decided to re-review their work, and I was delighted to find that competitiveness created by Geraldo's presence has had an effect. Oprah's shows during a typical two-week period this fall included Mothers Who Don't Like Their Kids, Men Who've Been Raped, Call Girls and Madams, Men Obsessed With Younger Women, and Comic Relief. (Much needed, I'd say.) Phil has recently given us a 20th-anniversary special with, among other things, highlights from a show about Interracial Lesbian Couples. Because these topics compared moderately well with Geraldo's lineup during the same period (Dialing for Sex, UFO Rap Session, Real Lives of Dirty Dancers, Female Impersonators and Their Parents, Cats and Dogs on the Couch), it made me think, "Hey, I better make sure Geraldo is delivering." So that night I watched a Geraldo show on tape. The topic was Diet All-Stars, featuring a panel of four weight-loss champs. I yawned and said, "Come on, buddy, if -- "

"And also joining us on live remote from the bedroom he has not left for 17 years" -- a 1,000-pound man named Walter Hudson. Yeesh. Phil, Oprah, my advice to you is: Save yourselves some heartache. Fall on your swords now. ::