Jerry Springer was once a respected television journalist with a collection of Emmy Awards to prove it.
That was a long time ago. Before the chair-throwing and hair-pulling. Before the steamy sexual betrayals and the gratuitous breast baring. Before “ho” became common daytime television jargon.
After a prominent stint as a councilman turned mayor of Cincinnati, Springer had wandered his way into broadcasting and had big things ahead of him.
His current best-selling video series, Too Hot for TV, probably was not exactly what he had in mind.
In the beginning, the “Ringmaster,” as Springer touts himself in the book and movie released last Thanksgiving, was just a lowly public servant who scored a big break when his bosses at WLWT-TV tapped him to be the next Phil Donahue.
Eight years ago, “The Jerry Springer Show” was launched, but not too far into outerspace.
“It started out as a serious show, a normal talk show,” said Springer in an interview before his lecture in the Marvin Center Thursday.
“I was still doing the news at the time, and I couldn’t very well be dancing with the Chippendales in the afternoon and doing serious things at night.”
When Springer finally left the news to devote all his time to the show, he made the decision that would change the course of his life.
“I decided to take the show to the young,” he said. “Everyone was going after Oprah’s audience, which was middle-aged housewives, and only Ricki Lake was doing a talk show aimed at younger people.”
And that’s when things got “outrageous.”
Going “young” soon came to mean airing the sex, violence and, in his own words, “outrageousness” that have become synonymous with his show.
In the past few years, the show has gotten even more wild, churning out episode upon episode of the same old antics with just a touch more assault, and a pound more flesh.
But Springer admitted to an audience of GW students Thursday that even he finds the partner-swapping, bed-hopping plot lines of his shows redundant.
The same outlandish formula has sent the show’s ratings skyrocketing over the past year, edging out longtime leader Oprah Winfrey in the daytime ratings, and engulfing viewers in more than 40 countries.
“It’s to be enjoyed, but I can’t tell you it has any particular value,” he said. “So now it’s just a circus; the silliest show on television.”
High on hormones and low on common sense, the budding, brawling stars achieve their 15 minutes of fame by calling the show’s production office – thousands per week.
Springer’s selection process?
“As long as (the story) is outrageous, and we can prove it’s truthful, you get to be on,” Springer said.
“The guests made it crazy; we never started out to make it crazy,” said Springer, who recently signed another five-year contract with the show.
Springer has been accused of exploiting guests and staging brawls.
Tackling the latter charge is the job of his producers, who are fairly keen at spotting a fake, though once in a while one slips through the cracks, Springer said.
“We could make up all the stories; we’re entertainment and there’s no requirement to be real,” he said. “But I just think it’s a better show when it’s true, so we work hard to make sure all the stories are truthful.”
Criticizing Springer’s show and other imitations, which often feature the escapades of lower-income, less-educated people, has been a popular pastime of both religious and congressional leaders.
Labeling the programs “trash TV,” they have tried to wage war on an American cultural craze.
Springer claims the resistance from political and media leaders is partly a response to a foreign class of citizenry basking in the glow of TV stardom.
“We’re not used to seeing these people on television,” he said. “Mostly what we see are talking heads or white, upper-middle class people. We’re not used to seeing this kind of craziness.
“This is America. These people have just as much right to be on television as all the talking heads on political shows.”
He adds, “I wouldn’t call human beings `trash.’ So they may not be as rich as other people, or they didn’t go to college, maybe, but I wouldn’t call them trash. I just think they’re outrageous – that’s why they’re on the show.”
Many of Springer’s fans, though, do not embrace his respectful rationale. They openly admit to watching the show purely to be reassured that some people have problems far more pathetic than their own.
“It’s funny to see people with lives that are so messed up,” said GW freshman Miriam Dowd. “It reminds you that, in comparison, you are normal.”
Freshman Malorie Hilcher, whose favorite Springer episode involves a dysfunctional family’s reconciliatory Thanksgiving dinner gone frighteningly awry, said she still believes the show’s main action sequences are staged.
“It’s obvious that the show does anything it can to incite violence,” Hilcher said. “But it’s still entertaining.”
Both of the students said they agreed the guests allow themselves to be exploited.
“It’s a laugh to see how self-worth is being sold for a lower and lower price every day,” said senior Lucas Wooster, who said he rarely watches Springer’s show.
Indeed, not all of the youth at which the show is aimed have embraced it. Less than half of the dozen students interviewed said the show simply did not interest them, though none reported finding it particularly offensive.
“It’s just so absurd it’s entertaining,” said freshman Sara Dinoff. “Springer’s found a way to make money. He shouldn’t be faulted for the fact that sex and violence sell.”