By Allison J. Waldman
Special to TelevisionWeek
“It’s chewing gum, it’s silly, outrageous, crazy … a fraternity party on air.”
That’s how Jerry Springer describes the television show that has made him a worldwide star. He says the talk show that bears his name is an absurdity to him: It’s a combination carnival freak show, sideshow entertainment and sordid circus that appeals to the most base emotions.
Despite its questionable quality, it’s been a phenomenal success, proving there’s a method to Mr. Springer’s madness.
“In a weird way I think Jerry does serve a serious purpose: He reminds us humans how far we’re capable of falling,” said TV Guide columnist Michael Logan. “Jerry is the antichrist of the talk show world or, at the very least, the anti-Oprah. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can’t appreciate the light without the dark, and Jerry dredges up the dark and degenerate and disgusting like nobody else can.”
Despite the awful things said about “The Jerry Springer Show”-and awful things have been said-the program has made television history, celebrating its 3,000th episode, which is scheduled to air May 12.
Speaking of his show, Mr. Springer has written, “This is a slice of American pie. If you don’t like it, bite something else.”
Many have, but many have chosen to keep watching, and as Barry Wallach, president of the show’s syndicator, NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution, said, “The show attracts nearly 3 million viewers each day and … has been able to maintain its popularity with the American daytime audience for a long time.”
The original intent of “The Jerry Springer Show” was hardly innovative. It was conceived as simply a replacement for “The Phil Donahue Show.”
With Mr. Donahue retiring from the daily grind, Multimedia Entertainment plucked Jerry Springer, a lawyer and semi-successful politician, from his anchor desk on the NBC affiliate WLWT-TV in Cincinnati and launched “The Jerry Springer Show.” But it wasn’t the same “Springer” then that we see now.
When it premiered Sept. 30, 1991, the show was just like all the other chat shows crowding the syndicated landscape at the time, with hosts such as Oprah Winfrey, Jenny Jones, Montel Williams, Carnie Wilson, Geraldo Rivera, Maury Povich, Sally Jessy Raphael, et al.
In the first few years, Mr. Springer did what his peers were doing. He interviewed guests like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, let fitness-crazy Richard Simmons cavort with his audience, and tackled safe subjects with shows titled “Charity Frauds” and “We Met in the Personals.”
In 1994, when Richard Dominick took over as executive producer of the staid, predictable “Springer,” the talk show was on the verge of cancellation. Mr. Dominick and Mr. Springer agreed that they needed to try something different or call it a day.
They explored harder-edged, controversial themes and risqué subjects. To some, it looked like they were aping the shock tactics of “The Morton Downey Jr. Show.” That wasn’t the case.
Mr. Downey’s show, which began in 1987, was widely considered overtly offensive and mean-spirited.
“The difference between the outrageous talkers that came before Jerry is, simply, that Jerry was never looking for trouble,” said Eric Scott Olsen, former manager of on-air promotions for “The Jerry Springer Show.” “Hosts like Morton Downey Jr. liked to insinuate themselves between warring guests and mine the controversy for all it was worth. … When Jerry addresses his guests, it’s with the same tone of incredulity in which the viewers scream at their television screens.”
In fact, the revamped “Springer’s” role model was “The Ricki Lake Show,” which veered from the conventional.
“Ricki was 25 years old. She was a kid, and she talked to people her own age; she spoke their language,” said Mary Ann Cooper, daytime TV journalist. “That was the key to her success. She related to that crowd and plugged in to what they wanted to really talk about on a talk show.”
Mr. Springer and Mr. Dominick reasoned that if they went after Ricki Lake’s demographic-college-age kids-instead of the middle-aged homemakers that Oprah and the rest of the talk show hosts were targeting, “Springer” might survive. “Better to be one of two than one of 20,” Mr. Springer said.
Not long after the change, the ratings began to improve enough that Multimedia renewed “Springer.” With success, though, came criticism and skepticism.
Shows with titles like “I Slept With 251 Men in 10 Hours” and “My Girlfriend’s a Guy” were ratings boosters, but they also invited disbelief and hostility.
TV professionals, church leaders and politicians complained that “The Jerry Springer Show” was a prime example of the degradation of American values. “Springer” was labeled “trash TV,” and television heavyweights including Grant Tinker, former chairman and CEO of NBC, denounced the show.
“Springer’s one-hour syndicated slugfest debases all of us,” said Mr. Tinker.
Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and former Secretary of Education William Bennett gave “The Jerry Springer Show” the Silver Sewer award, calling it “the leading purveyor of cultural rot.” Another politician, Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, declared that the show was “the closest thing to pornography on broadcast TV.” New York Newsday wrote that the show was “very possibly the worst program in the history of television.”
It wasn’t only the screaming and fighting that was branding “Springer” as TV poison-there were also the show’s topics. Nothing seemed off limits.
On May 22, 1998, Mr. Springer opened the show saying, “There’s been all this controversy about the fights. Well today we have a love story.” Then he proceeded to introduce a man named Mark and the love of his life, Pixel-a horse. In vivid detail, Mark talked about his sexual relations with Pixel. Then another guest, Rebecca, brought out King, her canine lover, as did Brad, who nuzzled his doggy lover, Lady, in front of the studio audience.
“Springer’s guests and situations were so over the top that they-and he-were impossible to ignore. Like most of pop culture, the show was not to be taken seriously, and the host and audience understood that,” said Rich Hanley, graduate program director of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University.
Nevertheless, many prominent people were taking the show seriously and were moved to act.
A month after the bestiality episode aired, the Rev. Michael Louis Pfleger of The Community of Saint Sabina Church in Chicago led a battle to get “The Jerry Springer Show” off the air. He organized demonstrations and a picket line in front of the studio, and his efforts resulted in the Chicago City Council’s investigating the show.
In 1999, the council held a hearing to look into the violence on Mr. Springer’s program. First Amendment protection allowed the show to cover any topic imaginable, but the fisticuffs were another matter.
The council contended that if the on-air scrapes were real, the guests could be arrested for fighting in public. If the brawls were rigged, the show’s producers should be exposed as manipulative frauds.
Mr. Springer went to the hearing, and his experience as a lawyer and former councilman served him well. He repeatedly criticized council members for not distinguishing between “violence on the streets of their city” and “roughhousing in our studios.” He reiterated that the show was just TV; nobody was forced to watch it.
The council dropped the case without acting and “Springer” went on, but the protests did bear fruit. Barry Diller, chairman of Studios USA, the company syndicating the show, had had enough. He demanded a cleanup of the show, ordering that the guests must stay in their seats. If there was any on-air violence, the director was ordered to cut away.
To some extent, the producers listened. But the essential focus of the show remained the same: conflict, confrontatio
n and contretemps. The introduction of the “Springer Cam” brought, via viewer-submitted tapes, the same kind of violence and bizarre subject matter to the show that had been in the studio.
The popularity of “The Jerry Springer Show” rose dramatically from 1996 through 1998. During 1996-97, the show averaged a Nielsen rating of 2.9. During 1997-98, that figure more than doubled to 6.5. In a stunning turn, “The Jerry Springer Show” dethroned “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as the top syndicated talk show.
In 1999, “The Jerry Springer Show” merchandise exploded on the scene: a Jerry Springer doll, board game, boxing gloves, bobbleheads, security guard T-shirts, caps, coffee mugs and more. Real Entertainment created uncensored, fight-filled videos-“Jerry Springer: Too Hot for TV”-that flew up the sales charts, surpassing the “Cops: Too Hot for TV” series.
The merchandise was everywhere, and so was Mr. Springer. He flew to New Orleans to be Grand Marshal of the Mardi Gras parade, was a guest speaker at Oxford University, and when Forbes compiled a list of 100 top celebrities, Mr. Springer was No. 59. Worldwide distribution of the show made Mr. Springer an even bigger star.
Invariably, the ratings rise and financial success of the show resulted in significant recognition, though rarely positive.
Mr. Springer and company accept the left-handed compliments with good humor. When TV Guide’s editors chose “The Jerry Springer Show” as the worst television show ever, Mr. Dominick said, “After 12 years of broadcasting, and having never been recognized by the academy, we are thrilled to accept this prestigious award from TV Guide. And I’d like to thank my mother.”
USA Today cited “The Jerry Springer Show” for its unique contribution to TV, then explained that it was a turning point in television history because it was the precursor to reality TV, “which is often a thinly disguised attempt to re-create the problems and excesses people went to Jerry to confess.”
Tom O’Neil, columnist for TheEnvelope.com, pulls no punches in his criticism of “The Jerry Springer Show.”
“The savagery of his show is shocking, especially when guests, desperate for national attention, lure their lovers, relatives or friends on TV to reveal how they’ve secretly betrayed them,” he said. “It’s ambush TV. Jerry’s become rich heaping more cruelty on America’s most downtrodden folk. History has condemned P.T. Barnum for staging similar freak shows.”
“Springer’s” influence on popular culture can’t be denied. It’s been the subject of TV parody, country and rock songs, even fodder for an opera.
“You know you’ve made an impact when your very name is conjugated as a means to conveniently wag a finger at an entire genre of entertainment-‘Springerized’ and ‘Springeresque,’ for example,” Mr. Olsen said. “In this way, the name ‘Springer’ is to outrageous TV as Tabasco is to hot sauce, as Kleenex is to tissue.”
Loved or reviled, “The Jerry Springer Show” is nevertheless the eighth-longest-running show in the history of syndication. That’s the simple truth. Numbers don’t lie.