Consider for a moment the plight of a producer for the Jerry Springer Show. Trouble lurks everywhere. You’ve got to look out for hoaxers (a staffer once insisted a self-declared lesbian hermaphrodite drop his/her pants; luckily, he/she passed the test). Fighting’s okay, but not before the show (rowdy guests must be booked into separate hotels, or they could wind up in jail, as has happened before). And someone who rants satisfactorily over the phone won’t necessarily perform on stage. (One guest, invited to roar against pornography, was a lamb on camera. Turned out she suffered from multiple personality disorder. Who knew?)
Even the relatively safe installment that’s being taped on this late-April morning — ”Wild Ways to Make a Living” — has become a nail-biter. The Armani-suited Springer, 51, seems confident, shushing his audience of fist-pumping teens like a stern but respected teacher. Nevertheless, a crisis unfolds. A guest has just thrown a dollar bill at his girlfriend and stormed off stage, angry that she had demonstrated her dream job — men’s chest shaver — on an audience volunteer, slathering it on, just as the producer had urged.
Sure, conflict’s good. But what’s not so good is that the fratlike audience has burst into song upon the boyfriend’s hasty exit: ”Nah nah nah nah! Nah nah nah nah! Hey hey hey, goodbye!”
”Oh, no,” sighs producer Kay Wilson, when she hears the tune. ”I can’t afford the rights to that!”
But don’t feel sorry for Wilson and the rest of the Chicago-based Springer staff. The three-year-old show, ranked fifth in its genre during the most recent sweeps (behind The Oprah Winfrey Show, Live With Regis & Kathie Lee, Sally Jessy Raphael, and The Maury Povich Show), now pulls in 3.2 million viewers a day. With a 40 percent ratings jump in one year, it’s one of the fastest-climbing gabfests on the mountain of daytime talk. And what a mountain it is — raking in at least $400 million a year, and elbowing soaps and game shows out of airtime. The secret to Springer’s ascent? He’s mastered the chat-show formula: Fill the stage with America’s most outrageous, brawl-ready, high-decibel human flotsam.
Critics charge this bottom feeding not only lowers the nation’s cultural IQ but also incites violence. Witness the March 9 murder of one former Jenny Jones guest by another, who was apparently upset that his secret admirer was a man. Still, Springer won’t drop his show’s insanity level. ”Talk shows will never be in trouble because of the subject matter,” he says. ”The more controversial, the bigger the shows get.”
It wasn’t always this way for Springer. At first, the former Cincinnati mayor focused on such G-rated fare as ”Grandparents Raising Grandkids.” Problem was, nobody watched. On the verge of cancellation, he decided to go the way of Ricki Lake and Rolonda, booking freak shows and flesh parades like ”My Girlfriend Is a Call Girl” and ”My Boyfriend Turned Out to Be a Girl!”.