Rights of Springer

Get Jerry Springer started on the subject of what is tragic and exploitative on TV, and he does no soul searching. Instead, you’ll get an aggressive lecture on elitism, racism, and the nightly news. Particularly the horrors of such really degrading programming as 60 Minutes and CNN’s Crossfire. “I’m 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 I’m doing now than of when I was a news anchor.’’

Springer is sitting in his modest office on the second floor of Chicago’s 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 MTV’s 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, there’s 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 there’s 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, I’m 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. “I’m just a schlub with a show,” he says. And he argues that his show works precisely because he doesn’t judge.

“No adult ought to tell another adult what to believe,’’ he says. “The critics are angry because they don’t 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 isn’t like them.’’

He’s 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 that’s 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, there’s a rerun at 9:00 a.m., which is cutting into Regis and Kathie Lee’s 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, it’s got to be more than trailer parks,” says one media director. “The 1997-98 season will, no doubt, be remembered as Jerry Springer’s 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 Springer’s 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 you’ll not go to make a profit,” said Lieberman. More surprisingly, a network president, ABC’s 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. We’ll still have the tension and the gesturing and the threatening,’’ he adds reassuringly, as if listing various gourmet delicacies. “But we’re 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.”

Non-MENSA, nonideological, and nonauthoritarian – Jerry Springer is the first program in history to sweep the Nielsens by focusing on freaky threesomes. In the past year, the producers have abandoned broader material like 680-pound moms and KKK members in favor of a sort of Rainbow Coalition of interracial, homo-, hetero-, and bisexual love triangles and rectangles. There’s the dominatrix and her two slaves, one a hermaphrodite, the other a transsexual. There’s the pierced, tattooed, spidery Goth girl involved with the wispy, goateed guy – at least until she brings her other lover out, another Goth girl-cum-Megadeth-worshiper type. There are the exotic dancers in hair extensions and purple nails and tiny spandex dresses and platform heels cheating on their girlfriends (who also go for hair extensions and purple nails and spandex and cheating). And there’s that stylin’ married man, in freshly laundered Hilfiger, who cheated on his sweet, chubby, clueless wife with an obese, mean mistress and then, for the pièce de résistance, brought out his splay-collared, disco-suited boyfriend. (“I should have known you were gay when I saw your pink pager!’’ cried the wife.)

Perhaps the most groundbreaking, and democratizing, fact about Springer is that the interracial or homosexual aspects of these couplings are taken for granted. It’s the human betrayal that the producers orchestrate. But there again, it’s not like other talk shows, where guests cry or sit in mute rage. It’s packaged action spectacle, like pro wrestling – and producers even provide food and flowers for the participants’ throwing pleasure.

Jerry is the lightly Queens-accented voice of God coming from the wilderness of the audience (he says he stays in the back because he’s “a chicken’’). Otherwise, the action is underscored only by a string of squashed, squawking, awkward interrupted sounds, the pitch of expletives deleted and security guys shouting “Sit down.’’ It is the cartoon #$%&*@! made literal, an electronic tongue blocked by censors. Television at its most reduced and postliterate, Jerry Springer’s great achievement is that it’s the talk show that has all but obliterated talk.

In its place, America’s new No. 1 show gives us butting heads – the perfect visual metaphor for the breakdown of communication, if not civilization.

In Springer’s own perverse, parallel moral universe, he speaks proudly of never having had anyone associated with the O.J. trial or Clinton’s female troubles on his show. And perhaps with the dismissal of the Paula Jones suit, Springer’s got a point about the hypocrisy of the high-minded but relentless coverage by Sam and Cokie and Ted Koppel. But in giving voice to a different population of talking – albeit often bleeped-out – heads, Springer places himself less in the canon of Sally Jessy, Ricki, and Montel and more in line with Abraham, Martin, and John.

“I’ve never had to change my politics,’’ Springer likes to say about his transformation from sixties anti-establishment idealist to talk-show high sleazario. “If there’s anything in this absurdity, it’s that much of the constituency that voted for me – black, white, blue-collar, inner-city, disenfranchised – is still with me. I never had to take back a position.’’

He sees the media criticism of his show as “the ultimate bias of elitism and racism. We really do believe we are superior,’’ he says, “just because we went to better schools and speak English better.”

The distinction between shrill political argument and physically wigging out over sexual relationships doesn’t register with him. “Why doesn’t anyone ever say, ‘Why do you go on Crossfire with all that yelling?’ Some of the stuff on that show is much more damaging. But because they wear jackets and ties and have titles and are rich, then we don’t judge?’’

Asked what his old hero Robert F. Kennedy might think of his show, Springer replies, “If there was ever a public figure who could reach across a class divide of elitism to understand what you’re feeling, it was Bobby Kennedy. He would really, really feel for the people on our show.”

‘What he says is confusing, because there are huge elements of truth to it,’’ says Joshua Gamson, who teaches sociology at Yale and is the author of the just-published Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity (University of Chicago Press). Gamson started researching the book in the wake of the murder of Scott Amedure by Jonathan Schmitz, who was humiliated on the Jenny Jones show when Amedure announced that he had a crush on him. The trial and lawsuit have had a withering effect on the surprise setups and tabloid content of talk shows, sending many back to the safer confines of makeovers and weight loss.

“The appeal of Springer is transgression and rebellion, but it’s a bit of an empty rebellion,’’ Gamson says. “Springer might be representing people who otherwise wouldn’t be on television, but that does nothing to empower those people… . He’s smartly playing into the structure where the range of images is narrow. He has somehow managed to position himself as the alternative. But the alternative ends up being really narrow in itself… . Empowering means more than display.’’

While it’s true that the guests on display are not members of the credentialed, chattering class who appear as pundits on TV, it’s also the case that they satisfy a sort of reverse formula, playing into classic stereotypes of lower-class behavior that’s pure Stanley Kowalski: out-of-control, over-the-top, irrational and violent.

A recent Springer segment called “Love Against the Odds” presented an encore appearance by an armless, legless woman in a sleeveless dress. At the breaks, she flapped the stumps of her upper arms to applaud, but lest we feel any compassion, she also launched a bleep-bleep-bleeped verbal assault on her ex-husband, accusing him of stealing her money for crack. He more than returned the favor, pointing out that he has a MasterCard, that he makes $12.75 an hour, and that furthermore she’s a whore.

Springer won’t concede even the possibility that his show exploits human suffering, no matter that some of the segments amount to little more than class voyeurism. He constructs his own personal high road out of the fact that appearances on the show are voluntary. Most guests connect by responding to the 800-number that runs onscreen, accompanied by text like ARE YOU PREGNANT BY A MAN WHO HAS ANOTHER WOMAN PREGNANT AND YOU WANT TO MAKE A DECISION? They get plane fare, a limo ride, a hotel room, and food vouchers. They can also dip into the show’s wardrobe closet, which offers long-sleeved shirts for tattooed men, empire dresses for pregnant teenagers, and beaded backless gowns for transvestites.

Jerry’s parents, Margot And Richard Springer (now both deceased), were German Jews who escaped through the underground to London three weeks before World War II broke out. “My father was an air-raid warden,” Springer says. “He’d stand on top of a building with a helmet and a whistle.” Jerry and his older sister, Evelyn, were born in London, and the family traveled on the Queen Mary to New York in 1949. He was 5. The Springers settled in the safe haven of Kew Gardens, Queens. “I am the son of a vendor. My father made and sold stuffed animals on the Jersey coasts and beaches,” he says. “I remember loading up the samples in the car. My mother was a clerk in a bank. They were both very hardworking. Neither of them spoke English very well.”

They lived in a “Junior 4’’ apartment, meaning that Evelyn (now a linguist who teaches French) got the dining area as a bedroom and Gerald, all through his adolescence and until he left for college, slept in a partitioned corner of his parents’ room. (“I had a little accordion door, I remember. And God bless them, they gave me the windows.’’) He remembers the close familial quarters with such fondness that, he says now, “I was actually thinking of going back and buying the apartment, but of course, if I visit the city I want to be in Manhattan.’’

That kind of goofy sweetness is part of the puzzle of his latest incarnation. Here’s a kid who went to P.S. 99, Russell Sage Junior High, and Forest Hills High School, then got a New York Regents scholarship, though he chose to go to Tulane. Arriving in the South in 1962, Springer was drawn to the civil-rights movement. He graduated from Northwestern law school in 1968 and went to work as an aide in Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Springer was virulently antiwar, and when he joined a Cincinnati law firm in 1969 he worked on a referendum to lower the voting age to 18, even testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Pictures from this period show Springer in earnest-crusader mode, with aviator glasses and Welcome Back, Kotter hair.)

The referendum died, but Springer stayed in local Cincinnati politics, and at 25 ran for Congress (and lost) on an antiwar platform. He won a city council seat in 1971, but soon found himself living through his own Ohio-Queensboychick version of the Profumo affair.

In December 1973, and again in January 1974, when he was a councilman and newly wed to Micki Velten, a Procter & Gamble administrative aide, Springer visited a massage parlor across the Ohio River in Kentucky. He paid by check – “I didn’t have the ten bucks in cash,” he later joked – and was busted by vice cops. He told his wife and family, resigned from his political post, and came clean at a press conference. Springer’s honesty worked in his favor. In 1977, he was re-elected and, because he also got a majority of votes, under local law became mayor. He was 33.

From all accounts, Springer was a well-liked, well-respected mayor, known for his intelligence, for his efforts to make a conservative city more compassionate – and for bringing rock and roll to Riverfront Stadium. His biggest personal trial came in 1976, when his daughter Katie was born with considerable physical disabilities. Springer won’t talk about his daughter – or even comment on his current marital status – but his official bio says that Katie “was undaunted … and is a confident college junior and Springer’s top priority.”

After two terms, Springer stepped down and ran for governor of Ohio. When he lost, he became a reporter and political commentator for Cincinnati’s TV 5, WLWT. That led to a seven-year stint as a popular TV-news anchor, during which he helped move the station to No. 1 in the ratings and won Emmys for investigative reports about droughts in the Sudan and for going underground as a homeless person in New York.

When the company that owned the station offered Springer a talk show in 1991, he was being groomed as the next Phil Donahue. Both were telegenic helmet-heads with liberal bents. Both were articulate and achingly sensitive to the needs of people of color and women. Indeed, Phil was television’s first fully feminized male. Jerry might have been the second.

Springer conducted his early shows as mostly serious affairs, covering teenage racism in a Florida high school and survivors of gang violence, and interviewing political figures like Jesse Jackson. After the first year, during which the shows were shot in Ohio, production was moved to Chicago and Springer commuted for a year to keep his news job. Eventually he gave up the shlep. But as one of a pack of hosts in an overcrowded talk cosmos, he was having a tough time breaking through. Then – the story goes – he and his crew noticed that ratings shot up when certain kinds of guests appeared, individuals such as Melvin the Human Blockhead, who hammered nails into his nose.

“It’s not like we decided one day, ‘Hey, let’s have fights,’ ” says Richard Dominick, Jerry Springer’s bearlike executive producer. “It was always happening, but our previous owners made us edit those parts out. By the time we did show the confrontational parts, we had learned lessons and gotten pretty polished.”

The hook, ostensibly, is fighting (and what polished fights they are), but Jerry Springer is a show driven by the female body. Regardless of the aggressive sexuality shown by most female guests, it’s the same old thing: a sanctioned way for frat boys (in the audience and at home) to watch women in revealing outfits. It’s also a way for kids deprived of access to the XXX stuff on the Internet or cable TV to feel plugged-in.

The women in love triangles seem to be acting out macho caricatures about wild and horny babes. And the show is so rigidly structured (seven segments, with asmany as a dozen guests per 33-minute hour) that, after allowing for the fighting, there’s little opportunity for any other sort of expression. Most of the talk between women degenerates into “I’m a bitch? Well, you’re a whore!” There are variations such as “She’s a fat-assed bitch!’’ / “You’re nothin’ but an ugly slut!,” as well as the time-honored favorite from cat-fight central, “If you knew how to take care of him, he wouldn’t be sleeping with me!”

When the women come out primed for a fight, the audience applauds, as if this constitutes progress. (When men fight, there are boos.) Sisterhood is complicated on this show, mostly nonexistent. Especially if you’re sleeping with your roommate’s boyfriend, as Kim is with Laura’s. “Why did you do it?” Jerry asks. “’Cause he’s a great hunk of ass,” replies Kim. “It was a booty call.”

Springer often travels to various cities to press the flesh of station managers and ad-sales people, get interviewed on the local news, and speak at area colleges. As an old pol, he’s great at it, but he hardly has to campaign. Students account for a huge chunk of Springer’s viewership – amazing, these days, for an irony-free show – and at colleges he’s greeted like the pope. A few weeks ago at Temple University in Philadelphia, a hall overflowing with a racially diverse crowd of more than 400 kids (most in oversize pants) broke into pandemonium at his appearance to moderate a “battle of the sexes.” Doing their best to approximate the sub-Mensa style of the actual Springer show, the students made such fightin’ statements as “Men have brains in their genitals,” and “Women need to watch what they wear when they go outside.” One genius went off the topic with, “How much can Steve bench-press?,” and the audience erupted in “Steeeeve!,” a tribute to the shaven-skulled Chicago cop who’s head of Springer’s security.

But when Jerry took questions from the audience, the first, posed by a female African-American biology major and basketball player, was, “I know you show minorities, but why doesn’t your show show positive aspects of minorities?”

His answer: “That is true. That is true of anyone who is on our show.”

Television is a Darwinian business. In the world of syndicated talk shows (aside from Oprah’s New Age dictatorial implorings and Rosie’s relentless celebrity cheerleading) there is no pretense of upholding social good, only a bottom-line response to the market and ratings. If, bowing to public pressure, any individual stations decide to drop Jerry Springer (and rumor has it that even WMAQ, his own host station in Chicago, is discussing the possibility), “many, many stations are standing by to steal it,” according to Henry Schleiff.

“More and more stations are using it as a lead-in to the news,” says Schleiff – ironic, hilarious even, given Springer’s dogmatic anti-news moralizing. “Jerry’s bringing a huge fresh audience to the five o’clock news. He should get a Peabody Award for bringing more new viewers to the news than anyone in history.”

Funny he should mention the Peabody. Last year, a controversy erupted at WMAQ when the station manager hired Springer to provide news commentary on the ten o’clock news. Carol Marin, one of the longtime anchors and a respected journalist, resigned in protest, and for his first commentary Springer went on the offensive, making references to “elite snobbery,” “Walter Cronkite wannabes,” First Amendment rights, and even the Holocaust. He told a story of having to decide, when he was mayor, whether to allow neo-Nazis to march in Cincinnati: how his dad had reminded him “that this is America, that this is the freedom that we sought when we escaped to here.”

But local Cincinnati papers claimed Springer was lying, that signing the permit wasn’t even a decision within the mayoral range of duties. Springer resigned as commentator after two appearances, saying that the fights had gotten too personal. Recently Marin was given a Peabody Award award for her “personal commitment to ethics and integrity in local broadcast journalism.” She’s now a correspondent for Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel.

Robert Feder, the Chicago Sun-Times television columnist who covered the whole front-page-making debacle, says, “It’s hard to believe that Springer had no idea of the storm coming back to the news would create or how he is perceived. He really was shocked and outraged at the negative reception.” Regarding Springer’s career, Feder says that “the tragedy of it is that someone like Jenny Jones can’t do anything else. She has no brains. But Springer’s actually a smart guy.”

One of Springer’s trademarks is his “Final Thought,” a sort of Norman Vincent Springer sermonette that he always closes with “Take care of yourself – and each other.” In a recent “Thought,” he counseled guests who worked in “the erotic entertainment business” over the objections of their families:

“When the money is good … and the work’s not too tough, other arguments also pale… . But you may lose more than you think. The future opportunities become limited… . Yeah, the money’s good, but the ultimate price you pay may be too great.”

Rights of Springer