In 2002, TV Guide named Jerry Springer’s eponymous talk show the worst TV show in history. Regardless of that ignominious honor, the syndicated program has aired more than 4,000 episodes across 27 seasons. Now after countless bad reunions, predictable shouting matches, and the occasional brawls, “Jerry Springer” will end production of new programs while remaining a repeat staple on the CW and other networks.
“Jerry Springer’s departure from the daytime landscape marks the end of an era,” says Dan Wilch, a senior vice president at Magid. “Many people don’t remember it, but he came on the scene as a mild-mannered, issues-oriented talker — a sort of latter-day version of Donahue. But the show found little traction, and it took what at the time seemed like a big risk and struck a chord.”
Over the decades, Magid’s proprietary studies have talked to tens of thousands of daytime viewers. The data consistently showed Springer was the most polarizing daytime program out there.
“Naysayers felt the program was over the top, trashy, and outrageous — and they judged and avoided it,” Wilch explains. “Used to programs like Oprah and Sally and Montel where you identified with the guests, they could not resolve the gap between dysfunction and empathy.”
Fans had a different take — and felt they were in a club of sorts. Those who loved it would agree with the critics’ assessment, but more than anything they found it funny.
“The show’s outsize antics and conflict on steroids was so ridiculous you had to laugh. And above it all was the affable and intellectual Jerry Springer in his Armani suit — a sort of witness to the mayhem who could represent the home viewer who never identified with the goings on,” Wilch says.
“The thing about Jerry was that everyone was in on the joke — the audience, Jerry, even the guests. Those who hated it — and there were a lot of people — failed to find the humor.”
The irony is that, in the current climate, Jerry Springer’s approach can feel almost quaint. Twenty years ago, he started putting these uncivil, non-PC, outrageous guests on stage to yell and fight and lie — it was such a contrast to accepted behavior that it felt breakthrough.
Wilch describes the show as “pure theater.”
Early on, it was the only game in town. With the proliferation of reality and the Wild West of the digi-sphere, that’s no longer the case. Perhaps scarier, what once lived an hour a day on daytime TV as pure escapism and a “this-will never-happen” extreme has become the norm in our civic society.
“It has to be hard for Jerry to remain relevant when you only have to read the morning newspaper to hear our leaders taking the same sorts of approaches his guests did,” Wilch adds.
“Except now it is not a joke — it’s our shared culture.”
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