‘Springer’ Hits 3,000: Shocking Ringmaster Revelations!

May 8, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Most people probably think of Jerry Springer as primarily the ringmaster of TV’s most outrageous talk show. But there’s a lot more to Mr. Springer than just “The Jerry Springer Show.” He’s one of the voices of liberal politics on Air America Radio, and was once the mayor of Cincinnati. He’s run for governor of Ohio, practiced law, sung country music, acted in movies and was the award-winning anchorman on the nightly local newscast.

Yet, for all his accomplishments, if you ask Jerry Springer about his success, he turns modest. To hear him tell it, he’s just a guy from Queens, N.Y., with more luck than talent-he’s been in the right place at the right time. He recently discussed his road from news anchor to “circus” host with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman.

TelevisionWeek: What were your original expectations when the television show began?

Jerry Springer: I didn’t have any. At the time, I was anchoring the news at the NBC affiliate in Cincinnati and I had been doing it for 10 years. We were pretty dominant in the ratings and I really thought that was my career. It’s what I was doing and I enjoyed it. I was the managing editor there. I was really into it.

TVWeek: How did you wind up doing a talk show?

Mr. Springer: The company that owned the station, Multimedia, also owned “The Phil Donahue Show” and “Sally Jessy Raphael” and some other talk shows. They were in that business, and one day Walter Bartlett, the CEO, took me to lunch and said, “Phil is getting close to retirement, so we’re going to start another talk show and you’re going to host it.” … It wasn’t anything that I auditioned for. I never tried out; I was assigned to it and I was an employee … so I didn’t really have any thought about it. I mean, I figured maybe I’d do it for a few weeks and we’d see how it would go and that would be it. I had no long-term expectations.

TVWeek: What about the news?

Mr. Springer: Well, I told [Mr. Bartlett] that I wanted to continue doing the news, and he said that was no problem. For about two years, I did both. When the talk show moved to Chicago, I would get up in the morning-in Cincinnati-and fly to do the TV show in Chicago in the afternoon, then I’d fly back to Cincinnati to do the news, which I did at 5:30, 6:00 and 11:00.

TVWeek: How long did you keep that up?

Mr. Springer: For about a year and a half. Close to two years. Finally I decided that it was too much to do, and since I had done the news for 10 years, I realized it was time to devote my time to the TV show. That’s how it happened. Originally, I had no interest in doing a talk show. I had never seen any, really. But there it was; I just got lucky.

TVWeek: What did you think when the show began to go wild and crazy?

Mr. Springer: Well, here’s how that came about. For two or three years, we were just a traditional talk show like everyone else. All the shows at the time were trying to be like “Oprah.” There were like 20 of them, and they were all trying to appeal to middle-aged housewives. That was the demographic at the time. But then Ricki Lake came along. She was the first talk show to go after the young people. It was the first talk show for college kids. So I took the producer aside at the time and said, “You know, instead of being one out of 20 talk shows, why don’t we go after Ricki’s audience and be one out of two-just become a young show?” And that’s what we did. It’s the only decision we really ever made. It meant that we would have young people in the audience, young people on the show and young subject matter.

TVWeek: And that led to a different kind of show?

Mr. Springer: Yes, because young people are much more open about their lives. The show started to go wild on its own, not because we said, “Let’s go wild.” We just said, “Let’s go young.” Then, when Universal bought us, they said, “We only want wild.” So now if someone calls us with a warm, uplifting story, we have to send him to another show. We’re only allowed to be wild and outrageous.

TVWeek: During a time when Barry Diller was in charge of the company that produces your show, he really tried to stop the outrageousness. How did you deal with that?

Mr. Springer: I didn’t care. This is their show. I never had a particular interest in the subject matter. This is my job; I host the show. I’ll host whatever show they give me. It’s not a debate I ever really got involved in or cared about. It’s never been the center of what I do.

TVWeek: Does it bother you to do this type of show?

Mr. Springer: No. I’m lucky I get to be the host. I leave it to other people to decide what kind of show we’re going to have.

TVWeek: If the show is not the most important thing to you, what is important to you?

Mr. Springer: Well, other than personal things, in terms of career, my political interests, my political involvement, that’s what I spend most of my time doing here or when I was doing work in South Africa. … I’d say political-type work. The radio is obviously an extension of that and it deals with political issues. That’s what I’m really interested in. I make a substantial part of my living through the television show, but that’s my job, not my life.

TVWeek: Would you say then that the real Jerry Springer is the man on Air America more than the host of “The Jerry Springer Show”?

Mr. Springer: Yes, because those are my views, what I say on the radio. I mean, I’m not suggesting that the host on TV is a fake Jerry Springer. That’s me hosting a show about crazy people in crazy situations. I don’t curse on the show; I don’t strip on the show or do stuff like that. …

TVWeek: You’re an observer.

Mr. Springer: Yes, exactly. If I were choosing my own interests … You know, I’ve always said, I don’t watch my show, but it’s not aimed at 62-year-old men. Our audience is college kids. If I were in college, then yes, I’d watch it. But now I have no interest in it.

TVWeek: What are some of the most amazing things to come out of the show?

Mr. Springer: It broke ground. Not purposely, but it ended up breaking ground because prior to our show American television had always had just one perspective-upper-middle-class white. That was mainstream America. If you had a minority show, you were on one of the side networks. For the major networks, it was always upper-middle-class white. If you happened to be black, you had to be a doctor living in the suburbs like Bill Cosby. Even when minorities did the news, they had to talk like they lived in the suburbs and were white. It was a very narrow perspective. Then our show came along, and for the first time we saw people we were not used to seeing on television. You can’t walk down any street of America without seeing them. No grown-up can honestly say, “Gee, I didn’t know that happens.” We all know it, and it happens in every neighborhood in America, but we’ve never shown it on television. And that’s how our show broke the mold. All of a sudden, you didn’t have to be white, wealthy, upper-middle-class or drop-dead gorgeous to get on television. You know, regular folks could be on television. That, I think, is how we opened the door. That’s the greatest contribution of the show.

TVWeek: Are you ever shocked by what happens on the show?

Mr. Springer: No, but I don’t know if that’s because of the television show. I don’t think you can be a grown-up in today’s world and be shocked by anything. I mean, we’ve lived through a world war, the Holocaust, we’ve seen a presidential assassination, the civil rights marches, the Vietnam War, 9/11, through Watergate, you know, what’s shocking anymore? So when people say to me, “Oh, boy, your show …” I’m polite and I say, “Yes, yes,” but in reality, I’m thinking, “Come on, read the newspaper!” We may be surprised that it happens to a
particular person that we know, but you can’t really say that anything you’ve seen on our show hasn’t happened in real life to someone, somewhere.

TVWeek: The show appeals to many people-more than just college kids. The ratings bear that out. What do you think is the appeal?

Mr. Springer: I think as human beings, we are always fascinated by how other human beings live. We are social beings, and that distinguishes us from animals. Before there was the media, people would go down to the town square and gossip. They would talk about what their neighbors were doing. “Did you hear about this?” Now it’s just on television. And I think the appeal is that you can observe how other people live without going into their homes. In other words, it brings the world into your living room. You know, into the safety and security of your home without you getting necessarily involved.

TVWeek: On the other side of the coin, why do you think the TV show has incited such enmity?

Mr. Springer: Because it’s so different. It’s way out of the box. And it’s now become socially acceptable to say, “Ah, that’s awful.” Even though everyone knows that their kids are watching, and they don’t hate their kids. It’s fashionable to say that it’s awful, and yet at every party somebody will make a joke about it. “I’m having a Jerry Springer moment.” It’s not like people go to bed at night saying, “I can’t sleep because of what I saw on that show.” It’s just television.

TVWeek: Are you surprised when church leaders and politicians condemn you for the show?

Mr. Springer: Oh, no. I never take it personally. I didn’t invent people and what they are. I’m just the one that hosts the show about them. Like if I did a show about the 10 most infamous murderers in American history, I would host the show but that doesn’t mean I endorse murder. If I do a story about Osama bin Laden on the news, that doesn’t mean I endorse Osama bin Laden.

TVWeek: Do you think people find fighting visceral and that’s why they’re watching?

Mr. Springer: The real reason they watch is to escape. If you want one hour to get away from your life, it’s a way to do it. It’s just an escape. Some people find it funny. It has no great social value. I’ve always said that I would never argue that people should watch it, I would merely argue that they be allowed to watch it.

TVWeek: In the wake of what happened on “The Jenny Jones Show,” do you have to be extra careful about what you present? (On a “Jenny Jones” episode titled “Same Sex Secret Crushes,” Scott Amedure, a young gay man, confronted his friend Jonathan Schmitz to say that he had a crush on him. Mr. Schmitz laughed about that revelation during the show, but three days after the taping, he killed Mr. Amedure.)

Mr. Springer: No, we don’t, because we were [careful] from day one, before that ever happened. From the first day we ever did this show, if there’s going to be a surprise, the guests are always told. They are given 21 possibilities of what the surprise might be. And they have to agree to all the possibilities before they get on the show. So nobody can then ever say, “I wouldn’t have gone on if I knew.” And we did that because we never wanted our guests to be angry at us. I’m not interested in hurting anyone. This is a TV show, for God’s sake. I don’t take it seriously and I don’t want them to either. We would never do anything that the participant hasn’t agreed to.

TVWeek: How do you compare your show to Oprah Winfrey’s?

Mr. Springer: There is no comparison. Oprah has a legitimate talk show. Mine’s not a real talk show; it’s a circus. It’s not even in the same genre. She’s the best there is. She’s a real talk show host. I just lead a circus; that’s all I do. I don’t think she and I ought to be in the same sentence. She’s a real talk show host; I just play one on television.

TVWeek: Are there advantages to doing the show from Chicago as opposed to Los Angeles or New York?

Mr. Springer: I think you get more of a sense of wonderment in the Midwest. It’s kind of a generality, but maybe not. I think if I did the show on either coast, people would come and say, “Yeah, well, I see that every day.” I think being in the Midwest you get a cross-section of America. There’s a reason why Oprah and I are still on. It’s one of the reasons why our shows have run so long; we’re in Middle America.

TVWeek: I read that you once compared yourself to Ed Sullivan, except he got to introduce the Beatles and the Bolshoi Ballet …

Mr. Springer: Exactly, that’s it. I’m the poor man’s Ed Sullivan.

TVWeek: Are you ever frustrated that this is the kind of show you’ve gotten?

Mr. Springer: No, I love my life. I’m the luckiest human being that ever walked this earth. I mean, good Lord, I have no talent, and I wind up with this cultural icon of a show seen around the world. And then I get to do all these wonderful things in life because of what the show has given me. Who am I to ever complain?

TVWeek: What are your fans like?

Mr. Springer: They’re great. You know, I walk through an airport and it’s always, “Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry! …”

TVWeek: Have you ever had a bad incident?

Mr. Springer: Never. That’s what’s amazing. Let’s face it, people who don’t like the show don’t watch the show. So I never face anyone who’s really upset. It’s the politically correct thing to say, “Oh, the show is awful,” but do people really spend time thinking about it or worrying about it? No. It’s just a television show. Now with politics, I’ll get people who come up and say they don’t like my views or whatever. But nobody takes my TV show seriously.

TVWeek: Have you ever worried that the show instigates situations as opposed to just letting them happen?

Mr. Springer: No, it’s just unreal to believe that. People come with their lives; you don’t change a person’s life because they’re on for a 15-minute segment. Only people who are in television believe they are that important. I mean, in real life, what some of these people go through, to suggest that their lives are going to change because they get to talk to Jerry Springer is absurd. And I tell them ahead of time, “If you have a problem, get to a doctor, get to a counselor. This is a TV show. This is not a place to solve problems.”

TVWeek: Are you still interested in a career in politics?

Mr. Springer: Yes, at some point I might run. Right now I’m really active with other things. I go out and give speeches, and raise money and that kind of thing. And the radio show is a phenomenal outlet for getting involved. It’s helping to shape the public debate in America and our future, so I enjoy that. I think at some point I will run again. I’m in a lucky position because it’s not something I have to do.

TVWeek: You’re celebrating your 3,000th episode. Could you see yourself going for another 3,000?

Mr. Springer: Oh, no. At some point I’ll just stop and someone else will do it. I don’t see myself going another 15 years. At some point I’ll get tired, but right now, why stop? I like it. It’s easy. It doesn’t take up a lot of my time. So there’s no reason not to go on.