Who To Praise Or Blame? It Might As Well Be Springer

Jerry Springer died yesterday, and I was honestly stunned at to how many people in my professional and personal worlds were touched and impacted by this loss.  While Springer was 79, few knew how severe the battle with pancreatic cancer that would claim his life was; as late as last week, he was actively giving interviews and he wasn’t all that far removed from active taping of both his enduring daytime talk show and his short-lived followup resolution series JUDGE JERRY.

But in hindsight I suppose given how impactful his show and he was on the TV industry and, parenthetically, the state of America today, it shouldn’t have been so surprising.  There is more than a subtle bit of irony that he passed the same week that Tucker Carlson was fired, and FOX News Channel’s audience in that time slot has cratered to the level that earlier this week MSNBC’s Chris Hayes actually outdelivered it.  Arguably, the table was set for a comeback for him, or at least his type of show.

Springer hosted a self-described “circus” for 27 seasons, two more seasons than Oprah Winfrey, whose ratings he actually eclipsed at the height of his popularity in 1998, hosted her show.  Winfrey, like Springer and many others, had come into national prominence after success in local markets.  Springer’s show was the latest in many that were produced by a Cincinnati-based TV station and production group called Multimedia, who prior to Winfrey’s ascent owned several of daytime TV’s most popular shows, including shows hosted by Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael.  Springer began with a daily show from the NBC station in Cincinnati, a city which he had previously been mayor of.  Initially, his show was much like Donahue’s, a standard interview show with normal guests and intriguing, if dull, topics.  The Los Angeles Times described his early episodes as an oppressively self-important talk hour starring a Cincinnati news anchorman and former mayor.”  

As Winfrey’s lock on the kinds of viewers that typically were sought after by daytime TV advertisers and stations–stay-at-home women and moms–increased, the talk show industry looked at whatever ways they could to appeal to anyone who may have been available to watch who wasn’t in that demo.  One of the few competitors to Winfrey that had some occasional success was Geraldo Rivera, whose signature moment was an episode that culiminated with an all-out brawl that left Rivera with a broken nose–and his stations with higher ratings (and, yes, that episode just happened to be in a sweeps period).  One should also note that that episode’s topic was “Young Hatemongers”, which cast a light on adolescent neo-Nazis.  But, hey, it got ratings.  And in the world of syndication and daytime TV, that was the bottom line.

So Springer and producer Richard Dominick shifted the tone of his show borrowed a page from that playbook and shifted the tone toward more salacious topics.  As Neil Genzlinger of THE NEW YORK TIMES reported in his obituary of Springer yesterday, the choices of topics, often superimposed for an entire episode in large, tabloidy fonts were intended to capture channel surfers in the same way that a traffic accident creates rubbernecking:

Worshiping the Lord with snakes — next, Jerry Springer!” were turning up, and the shock value just kept going up. A 1995 episode featured a young man named Raymond whom Mr. Springer was helping to lose his virginity, offering him five young women, hidden by a screen, to choose from. Raymond’s friend Woody accompanied him.

“Woody doesn’t know it — his 18-year-old virgin sister is one of the contestants!” a scroll told viewers.

THE INSIDER’s Eve Crosbie prompted a few more memories in her write-up”:

Some of the most memorable and outrageous episodes include a man who was living in marital bliss with his horse, a woman who had sex with 251 men in 10 hours to beat the world’s sex record, and a mother and daughter who teamed up to be dominatrixes together.

A few more, per the Associated Press’ recap of the show when it ceased production five years ago:

Some of his shows last month illustrated that the formula hadn’t changed much: “Stripper Sex Turned Me Straight,” ”Stop Pimpin’ My Twin Sister,” ”My Bestie is Stalkin’ You,” ”Hooking Up With My Therapist” and “Babes with Baguettes.”

Calling the guests and, indeed, many of the viewers who watched this show lowbrow would be a reach.  These were representatives of a brow that barely got off the ocean floor.   But Springer did indeed touch a nerve with underserviced viewers.  Many of them were indeed young; so much so that the show was able to be aired successfully in late night as well.  Unexpurgated home video releases of his more provocative episodes regularly were best-sellers, effectively allowing for the kind of repurposing of content usually seen in the porn industry that seemed to attract many of the show’s more revered subjects.

Springer’s format was unapolgetically embracing and enabling.  As the Associated Press’ Dan Sewell reported yesterday, Springer defended this approach with the same sort of bravado and straight-forwardness that politicans, rock stars and reality TV stars have:

Look, television does not and must not create values, it’s merely a picture of all that’s out there — the good, the bad, the ugly,” Springer said, adding: “Believe this: The politicians and companies that seek to control what each of us may watch are a far greater danger to America and our treasured freedom than any of our guests ever were or could be.”

He also contended that the people on his show volunteered to be subjected to whatever ridicule or humiliation awaited them.

And, indeed, his connection with those non-Oprah viewers was strong.  Springer brought his show to college campuses, where he was revered by students who would chant “JERRY!, JERRY!” at the mere sight of this otherwise unasuming nice Jewish boy who would go home to his wife of nearly 50 years and the Chicago suburbs after his appearances.  I brlefly worked with Jerry on a series of episodes of the tell-all game show BAGGAGE that toured such venues, and to see this unfold was simutaneously captivating and disturbing.

He connected with viewers and gave them a lens to be seen through.  He’d end his shows with his signature “final thought” , where after the tumult and the eventual melee he’d sanctimoniously offer a recap, disingenuous hope for resolution, and his sign-off line “Take care of yourself, and each other”.

In his final days, Springer actually became somewhat self-reflective.  As THE INSIDER’s Crosbie added, he knew exactly what he was doing, and seemed to acknowledge its impact on the society that has become today’s norm:

Speaking on David Yontef’s “Behind the Velvet Rope” podcast in November 2022, the politician turned TV host was asked if he considered himself the “granddad of reality TV,” thanks to his eponymous talk show, which aired almost 5,000 episodes between 1991 and its cancellation in 2018.

Springer wasn’t keen to accept the title and instead answered: “No, I just apologize. I’m so sorry. What have I done? I’ve ruined the culture.”

And yet, in the same breath, he embodied and embraced the kind of accessibility and representation that was reflected in the quote from his longtime friend Jere Galvin that made the rounds in yesterday’s reports, including Carmel Dagan’s obituary in VARIETY!:

Jerry’s ability to connect with people was at the heart of his success in everything he tried whether that was politics, broadcasting or just joking with people on the street who wanted a photo or a word,” Galvin said in a statement obtained by Variety. “He’s irreplaceable and his loss hurts immensely, but memories of his intellect, heart and humor will live on.”

All of the folks in my social media timelines proudly displayed many of those candid photos, as well as warm memories of their encounters with Springer yesterday.  My few meetings with him were equally pleasant.  I suspect given his topics, and the kind of celebration of extreme viewers and violence that were depicted, someone like him probably had a few such pictures in their collections as well.

As Jerry concluded in his interview with Yontef:

He then joked: “I just hope hell isn’t that hot because I burn real easy. I’m very light-complected, and that kind of worries me.”

Based on how so many people I know chose to react to his passing, I’m kind of hoping he might be headed in another direction.  It’s easy to blame Springer for the kind of celebration of incideniary behavior with audiences that inevitably became FOX News viewers–and, of course, many who chose to stroll through the Capital or even to a supermarket or a school with a firearm.    Many of the broadcast network’s affiliates, as well as those of insurgent competitors like those affiliated with UPN, The WB and The CW aired the show in key time slots, trading off their inability to sell top-tier advertisers for the high ratings promos for their primetime shows and newscasts were able to deliver.   There’s little doubt that if one were to question the viewing habits of those who make news today about their viewing habits as youngsters, Springer’s shows would probably be on their lists.

But all Springer did was hold a mirror to his audience, who continued to watch, morning, noon and night, live and on videotape.  Springer himself was not a catalyst for such behavior.

Yeah, scratch that thought about replacing Tucker.

Take care of yourself, Jerry.

Until next time…


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