Get Jerry Springer started on the subject of what is tragic and exploitative on TV, and he does no soul searching. Instead, youll get an aggressive lecture on elitism, racism, and the nightly news. Particularly the horrors of such really degrading programming as 60 Minutes and CNNs Crossfire. Im guilty because I did it for ten years, says Springer, referring to his days in the newsroom in Cincinnati. God is gonna be a lot more tolerant of what Im doing now than of when I was a news anchor.
Springer is sitting in his modest office on the second floor of Chicagos NBC Tower, surrounded by shiny corporate knickknacks and his collection of baseball memorabilia under glass. Tanned, in jeans and a turtleneck, the 54-year-old host of the Jerry Springer Show is just back from Jamaica, where he taped two shows for MTVs Spring Break 98. His on-air uniform -- blue Armani suit, with a white shirt and tie already in place -- hangs on a coat rack near the door, firehouse-style. He has the trim, compact body and oversize head of a TV anchor, though his horn-rimmed glasses and blondish, layered locks are an unusual combo, suggesting a scholarly lounge crooner. Still, theres something of the intense politician -- which he once was -- about him. Imagine channeling Robert Redford via Jack Benny, or having Mr. Rogers and Dick Gephardt preside over a cable porn show, and you get an idea of the head-spinning contradictions within Jerry Springer. And then theres the fact that he, of all people, refuses to talk about his personal life.
Springer is the first to admit that Springer may well be the stupidest show in the world -- something his many, many detractors, who consider the talk show part of a foulmouthed assault on public values that includes South Park and Howard Stern, would be quick to second. Appearing on stage to discuss topics like Newlyweds Headed for Divorce and Honey, Im a Call Girl, the actual real people (as the producers call the guests) tend to pummel and smack one another before even sitting down to say hello. Sometimes the fighting gets so out of control that security guards pile on, turning the struggle into a human sandwich.
But Springer -- who loves Elvis and the First Amendment, who was an aide to Bobby Kennedy and a mayor and news anchor in Cincinnati, and who now Groucho-walks among the Colosseum-style masses in his audience -- does not look down upon his guests. Im just a schlub with a show, he says. And he argues that his show works precisely because he doesnt judge.
No adult ought to tell another adult what to believe, he says. The critics are angry because they dont like the fact that these people are on television. Everything on television is representative of an upper-middle-class white perspective. Even when you have black anchors, they have to speak upper-middle-class white. We are so molded into this single perspective that it is just offensive to these people that suddenly there is something on television that isnt like them.
Hes into a well-practiced riff. Our show is rough and vulgar, he says, working up some Roseanne-grade gusto, but that is a segment of American life, and once in a while if you have a show that reflects that, hey, learn to live with it, because thats America!
The program, he insists straight-faced, is not about exploitation. . . . It teaches the futility of fighting.
Whatever the disjunction between the show of the moment and the man behind it, Jerry Springer has experienced a manic growth spurt since last summer. It outperforms Oprah as the No. 1-rated daytime syndicated show in many markets; in some cases, viewer numbers are up more than 200 percent (no doubt boosted by the success of the Too Hot for TV outtakes video). And because of the seismic response, many stations air Springer twice, even three times a day. (Here in New York, where it runs on WB11, theres a rerun at 9:00 a.m., which is cutting into Regis and Kathie Lees ratings; the first-run show, at 11:00 a.m., is crushing the competition.)
For years, advertisers on Springer were the predictable low-rent hawkers: psychic hot lines, injury lawyers, and bill consolidators. But now mainstream advertisers like movie studios and pharmaceutical companies are slowly starting to buy time. When the audience is that huge, its got to be more than trailer parks, says one media director. The 1997-98 season will, no doubt, be remembered as Jerry Springers year, wrote Marc Berman, of Seltel, a TV-research firm, in a memo to client stations. It . . . is the fastest growing show in syndication ever. This is a show that has taken independent stations from worst to first in many markets.
Of course, not everyone is elated over Jerry Springers explosive growth. Last week in Las Vegas, addressing the National Association of Broadcasters convention, former Education secretary William Bennett and Senator Joseph Lieberman singled out Springer as the worst kind of trash and urged broadcasters to yank it off the air. Set a floor below which youll not go to make a profit, said Lieberman. More surprisingly, a network president, ABCs Robert Iger, said, I question the logic of putting him on the air, and I believe the entire industry suffers from the association.
The backlash could explain why USA Networks Studios, the Barry Diller-owned producer-distributor of Jerry Springer, announced new efforts to minimize further altercations between guests, including stepped-up security, and a strongly worded disclaimer -- for voluntary use by stations -- urging parents not to allow kids to watch. Or maybe management is just worried (and rightly so) that this new sports-like entertainment -- extreme guesting -- will end in tragedy. But USA Networks Studios executive vice-president Henry Schleiff claims the move is also to keep the product fresh and nonredundant.
As smart programmers, he says, we were concerned about keeping the show from becoming a passing fancy. Well still have the tension and the gesturing and the threatening, he adds reassuringly, as if listing various gourmet delicacies. But were also taking a lesson from competitors. Another show that has grown tremendously is Judge Judy. What you have there is confrontation without the physical. I would argue that Judge Judy is Jerry Springer for the Mensa group.