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Them’s Fightin’ Words

Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer

Far above pedestrians shivering in the damp chill of downtown, in a high-rise studio inside the NBC Tower, two men are engaged in mortal combat, trying to beat the daylights out of each other.

One warrior is a 28-year-old who is trying to reconcile with his wife of six years. His opponent is the wife’s new 25-year-old boyfriend, who wants her to dump her husband once and for all.

As the object of their affection looks on, the men rush each other and crash in a heap of flying fists and legs--and the studio audience erupts with cheers. The combatants wrestle so furiously that they fall off the stage, pursued by burly security guards and a cameraman trying to get a better shot of the action.

Once separated, the two suitors, their chests heaving with anger and adrenaline, retire to their respective chairs.

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A bespectacled man in a designer suit approaches the trio.

“All right now!” Jerry Springer says with a bemused smile. “I don’t wanna have to come up there!”

The frenzied audience members pump their fists and launch into a ritual chant: “JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!”

Springer fever is in the air.

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Three years after the shooting death involving guests on “The Jenny Jones Show” and the subsequent failure of lowbrow, confrontational talk series such as “The Richard Bey Show” and “Charles Perez” that drew the wrath of politicians and advertisers, the “Jerry Springer Show” has fought its way--literally and figuratively--to the head of the talk-show pack.

National viewership has grown from 3 million per episode last year to 11 million this year. During one week in February, “Springer” became the first syndicated talk show in 11 years to beat “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in ratings. They tied the following two weeks and Springer has been running a close second since then.

With its outlandish mix of acid-laced language, explosive brawls, themes such as “I Am Pregnant by a Transsexual,” “Prostitutes Vs. Pimps!,” “Mistresses Attack,” “I Want Your Man” and “Paternity Test: I Slept With Two Brothers,” Springer’s series has also become a cultural touchstone for comedians, columnists and commentators.

On “Springer,” guests don’t just sit in their chairs--they throw them. Finger-pointing, rage-filled confrontations are the order of the day, with friends and family members coming to blows in virtually every show. Male guests strike female guests; even pregnant women are caught up in the fisticuffs. Clothes come off--sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily. Therapists who can help put the conflicts in perspective or push the guests toward resolution, as they do on “Ricki Lake” and “Sally Jessy Raphael,” are nowhere to be found. The studio audience gives an automatic standing ovation to each clash, and regularly insults the participants during the question-and-answer segment.

If you’ve tuned to “Springer” looking for a tearful family reunion, a fashion make-over or a more heartwarming tale about triumph over adversity, you’ve hit the wrong remote control button.

In the spotlight away from the onstage ruckus is Springer, a mild-mannered 54-year-old whose former life included a stint as the mayor of Cincinnati. The program has transformed him into an unlikely media icon, crossing generational and racial lines. He has become a favorite on college campuses, selling out speaking engagements around the country. Students regard the show as an entertaining spectacle and see the host as a combination ringmaster/father figure/sex symbol. MTV featured him in “Springer Break” specials during the network’s recent Spring Break jaunt in Jamaica.

Fans of “Jerry Springer” call the show a hoot that is not dissimilar to a professional wrestling match where the good guys and the bad guys do mock battle. The star and his producers say the program, while intended to be entertaining, is also an in-your-face, unscripted microcosm of American life more real than slickly produced talk and entertainment shows that gloss over the effects of violence, infidelity and drugs.

Non-fans of “Springer” say the show’s success is a sure indication that the apocalypse is close at hand.

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Critics claim that “Springer” has reached the top by scraping the bottom. They denounce it as “trailer trash television” that deifies dysfunction, exploits unsophisticated guests and gives a promotional forum to the sexually confused and promiscuous, porn stars, adulterers, criminals, Ku Klux Klan members and various other ne’er-do-wells.

But even those who blast the show acknowledge that the public appetite for “Springer” is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored. The show is the top-rated national syndicated program with men and women 18-24, and with women 18-34. It ranks among the top five syndicated programs with men and women 18-49, 25-34 and 25-54. In Los Angeles, Springer’s show--which airs weeknights at 11 on KCAL-TV Channel 9 (with a previously aired episode broadcast at 10 a.m. daily)--has become the top-rated program in the highly competitive 11 p.m. hour, tying KNBC-TV Channel 4’s newscast between 11 and 11:30 p.m., and beating all other shows from 11:30 p.m. to midnight--including “Nightline,” “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Night With David Letterman.”

“Three or four months ago, there was a lot of advertiser resistance to Jerry,” said Don Corsini, general manager of KCAL. “There still is some, but you just can’t ignore the success and the demographics. It’s really turning around. Jerry’s like a cult hero and, bizarre as it seems, there are a lot of CEO types who are closet Jerry viewers.”

Steve Rosenberg, president of television distribution for USA Networks Studios (formerly Universal Television Group), which produces and distributes “Springer,” is ecstatic over the show’s ratings. But he also understands the critics’ concerns.

“We want to be responsible producers,” said Rosenberg. “We have to take a good, hard look at what people see, but we also look at the numbers that say a large part of the population likes what the show is doing right now. So we rate the show appropriately [TV-M, for mature audiences]. It’s not for everyone. It’s not for children.”

But don’t expect to get that message from Springer. He says that young viewers are more than welcome to watch his show. They might learn something, he says.

“It should be shown to kids at home,” says Springer, who defines his program not by the standards of other talk shows but by the panoply of TV programming, from soap operas to prime-time entertainment, which he contends are laden with depictions of sex, negative behavior and violence. “No one says that behavior is bad,” he explains. “They glamorize it, make it look beautiful and sexy. That’s what’s enticing to kids. There’s nothing on our show to make them say, ‘I want to try this.’ Kids watch other shows, see muggings, robberies and rape, and it’s all done to beautiful music. In our show, you look at what’s going on, and you say, ‘YECCH!’ ”

“Our audience always boos the bad guy and cheers the good guy,” he adds. “Our show becomes a little morality play. That’s not what its intent is, and I don’t want to sound too high-falutin’. But if you are concerned about what lessons come out of our show, we make it clear that violence is no good. We make it clear that infidelity, promiscuity, drugs and prostitution are bad.”

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Jerry Springer looks and acts like the last person who would be involved in controversy. His personality is like his TV persona--an easygoing, unassuming manner. He makes fun of his looks and loves expensive cigars. His office contains several pieces of sports memorabilia and a teddy bear with a “JER-RY, JER-RY” T-shirt.

His views on the show can be mercurial. On one hand, Springer calls his program a “silly little show.” He does not watch it, preferring to spend his limited TV-viewing time on political news programs or sports.

But minutes later, Springer becomes passionate when defending the program. For him, the show has a more serious mission than just giving jilted lovers or vengeful family members a chance to vent. It’s his challenge to what he calls the elitist, white, upper-middle-class perspective of the media.

“The media is so monolithic, and the people I have on my show have never been on mainstream TV,” Springer says after a taping one night, puffing on an enormous cigar at Jilly’s, a nightclub and former hangout for Frank Sinatra. The velvet recorded tones of the famed crooner almost drown out Springer’s words.

“We’ve built interstates around these neighborhoods so we don’t have to see them,” he continues. “People go into their windowed offices downtown, then drive home to the suburbs where they don’t have to see them. But the folks on my show are real folks. They curse, they lash out a lot, they may not speak the King’s English, but they are normal. We’re on the same team.”

Though others argue to the contrary, Springer insists the fights are not staged, nor are the guests encouraged to duke it out. The brawls are merely a natural outgrowth of that reality, Springer says: “I’m not saying that’s the way the world should be, but it’s honest and human.”

Executive producer Richard Dominick is the dominant force behind “Springer,” planning the segments and the show’s elements. He sends the host a summary of the programs before they are taped. Springer writes his “Final Thought"--a brief sermon ending each show--and looks at notes, but approaches each installment fairly spontaneously. He can take the show in a different direction if things are not proceeding as planned.

Dominick denies that “Springer” exploits its guests and holds up dysfunctional relationships for ridicule.

“These people contact us and come to us,” said Dominick, a bearded, former tabloid journalist and English teacher who smokes cigars in his large office, which contains lamps with busts of Elvis Presley.

“Everyone knows why they’re here,” the producer said. “Yes, these are real problems, but they are temporary problems. No one comes on with a real problem. It’s about who’s dating who, who’s going out with who, and viewers can relate to it. The people who come here fought before, they’ll fight today on the show, and they’ll be fighting tomorrow after they get home.”

“Springer” had had fights among guests for years, but viewers rarely saw them. The show’s previous owner, Multimedia Entertainment, ordered them edited out, and the camera would cut away to the crowd during the fisticuffs. That policy changed at the end of 1996, when Universal Television Group took over the show. “We told Universal, ‘We tape a great show, but no one sees it,’ ” Dominick said.

Only a few years ago, Springer was largely regarded with indifference, lumped together with Geraldo and Montel and Sally and Ricki. These days, major Hollywood producers, executives and celebrities, as well as news outlets such as “Dateline,” “Nightline” and “PrimeTime Live,” are pounding on his door.

“Everything comes at once,” says Springer. “All those years you struggle, you think, ‘Where is everybody?’ Now I want to play everything. You don’t get two shots at this. I want to experience as much as I can before the energy goes--or the hair goes.”

Projects springing into action on the Springer front include:

* A $2-million deal with producer Steve Stabler for a film starring Springer that would be based on the talk show.

* His “Too Hot for TV” video featuring uncensored portions of past Springer programs. The video, available only through mail order for $19.95, has sold more than a half-million copies since September. “Too Hot 2" is already in the works, as well as other Springer-related tapes.

* A possible situation comedy.

* Guest shots on programs including “The X-Files,” “The Wayans Bros.” and “Mad TV.”

Even the security guards who break up fights on Springer’s show have achieved celebrity status, particularly Steve Wilkos, distinguished by his tall build and shaved head. Wilkos has his own Web site, while the rest of the guards--mostly Chicago police officers--also are besieged all over town by fans of the show.

But Dominick said it is Springer who is crucial to the appeal of the show. “He’s just as amazed by what’s going on as you and I are, and that’s the attraction,” he said. “Jerry’s a real nice guy. He’s like the uncle you can’t wait to have come over. He has a calming influence.”

According to Dominick, the show is targeted to the college-aged audience that likes David Letterman, and the studio audience is predominantly young and culturally diverse. The youths are genuinely awed by the presence of Springer, who is firmly in control and, during breaks, entertains the crowd with corny one-liners and humming of pop standards.

Stacy Smith, 22, of Chicago, a self-described student and aspiring stripper, was in the audience for a recent taping. “Jerry is so sweet, he’s down-to-earth, and considerate,” she said. “I like the way he interacts with people.”

Alan Brown, 26, who traveled from Birmingham, Ala., to watch the production, said he also respects Springer and his “Final Thought.” “But I really like the fights,” he added.

Springer was given a hero’s welcome recently at the University of Tampa in Florida. More than 800 students packed the campus’ Falk Theatre and cheered as he answered questions. One woman pleaded for a hug, another received his smoked-out cigar. “He’s almost like a father figure to the kids,” said Grant Donaldson, the school’s public affairs director.

Added JoAnn Brown, assistant director of student activities, “Students like to see it because it makes them feel their lives aren’t so bad. They also see the show as total comedy.”

Southland fans say Springer is the perfect escape after a hard day of work, much more relaxing than watching the news.

“I tape it every day,” said Linda Nesbit, 52, a Los Angeles hairstylist. “I have fallen out of bed, I laugh so hard. I’ll call up my son to get him to turn his set on, and he’ll already be looking at it. He’ll say, ‘Mom, let’s get ready to rumble!’ ”

Vicki Clarke, 36, of Santa Monica, a trainer and safety supervisor for a transit company, said, “It wakes you up. It’s so out of the ordinary. I don’t take it seriously. It’s just entertainment.”

However, some viewers have been turned off by the fighting. Antoine Carlisle, 29, of North Hollywood, a veterinarian who used to be a regular Springer viewer, said, “I can’t deal with it anymore. People just make fools out of themselves. It’s just out of hand now. People don’t even listen anymore to hear why they should be mad at each other, they just come out on stage attacking. These are actual people, and I don’t think they realize just how bad they look.”

Even USA Network’s Rosenberg said “Springer” has at times broken through the envelope it’s pushing.

“There have been those occasions that we’ve gone to the producers and said, ‘We’re not going to go there,’ ” Rosenberg said. “And they have been responsive. We want to be a franchise that they can have for years to come.” He declined to elaborate on what he considers unacceptable.

But there was a recently taped program that may never see the light of day--not because it was out of control, but because Springer abandoned his spectator role and stepped in to protect a guest.

The incident happened during the episode described at the outset in which a man named Dennis wanted to reconcile with his wife, Liz, and wound up fighting with Dave, her boyfriend. Dennis was seeking the rapproachment mainly for the sake of their three young children.

During the segment, Liz revealed that she had let Dennis move back into the family home because he had tried to commit suicide, a fact that the producers previously had been unaware of. If they had known, they said later, they would not have allowed the trio on the program, since “Springer” does not permit guests with severe psychological difficulties. (Potential guests are interviewed at least three times before they are booked.)

Liz continued to berate Dennis, who appeared to become more uncertain and upset. Finally, Springer went up on stage, sat between them and told them to stop arguing. He congratulated Liz for allowing Dennis back into the house, and advised Dennis to put more energy into helping himself, not getting back with his wife.

Although Dominick acknowledged that it was a poignant moment, he was displeased with the outcome. “That’s not our show,” he said. It is doubtful the show will ever air, “Springer” officials say.

As viewership has grown, Springer has continued to attract the wrath of politicians and others who regard him more as the anti-Christ of chat than a popular hero.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors last month tried unsuccessfully to pressure executives at KOVR-TV to move Springer’s show from its 4 p.m. time slot, saying schoolchildren were being exposed to the fights and name-calling. Parents in Detroit a few weeks ago picketed station WDIV-TV for putting on the show in the afternoon (to no avail). And parents in other communities have complained of children engaging in Springer-style fights in the schoolyard.

Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.) recently called Springer “the closest thing to pornography on broadcast television.” The two legislators also denounced the decision of the Education Department to provide funding for the program to be closed-captioned for deaf and hearing-impaired viewers.

“The popularity of Jerry Springer has been disappointing, to say the least,” Lieberman said in an interview. “We took a lot of encouragement that many of the worst talk shows went off the air. How, in the midst of this, Springer comes along and is so successful is a mystery. It’s an awful commentary on our culture and our country.”

For stations and advertisers, “Springer” is a double-edged sword, said Rick Feldman, general manager of KCOP-TV Channel 13, whose reruns of “Mad About You” are getting trounced by “Springer” at 11 p.m.

“All of us as responsible broadcasters would like to put on programming that does a good rating [and] has a positive rub-off on the station,” Feldman said. “It’s pretty obvious that ‘Springer’ is not the show that you would want to be the signature show for your station, but if you run a TV station, you can’t ignore what the audience seems to want and the success of this show.”

He and other television observers worry that it may be only a matter of time before the airwaves are flooded with other talk-show wrestling rings. In television, success inevitably breeds imitation.

Producer Dominick sees no cause for concern, however. “No one can compete with us,” he said. “We have got this show down to a real polish. There are so many elements that we already have down--the security guys, the ‘Final Thought’ at the end, Jerry. It’s not just about the fights. If someone just wants to put on fights, it’s not going to work.”

‘JERRY SPRINGER SUCKS!”

Springer stands outside the entrance of Jilly’s, filming a comedic segment for E! Entertainment Television’s “Talk Soup,” when the male passerby walks behind him and bellows his disapproval. Wilkos, Springer’s best-known security guard, pursues the man and emphatically lets him know that the unsolicited outburst is not appreciated.

But Springer continues as if nothing has happened. Just a few minutes earlier, while sitting inside, two smartly dressed blond women had leaned over to tell him how much they loved his show.

“I’m enjoying the ride,” he says. “It’s total fun.”

The greatest satisfaction is being able to support his 21-year-old daughter, Katie, who was born handicapped. He calls her his top priority. “Because of this, my daughter will be taken care of forever,” says Springer. “That’s worth everything. I’ve accomplished that one thing, and I can enjoy the rest of my life.”

To be sure, there have been drawbacks. Springer, who dodges questions about his personal life, laments the loss of his privacy, and he is still regretful over his reaction (“I took it way too personally”) to the controversy that erupted when Chicago station WMAQ-TV hired him in 1997 to do commentary on the local news, a move that prompted two of the principal news anchors to quit. He resigned after only one commentary; the anchors did not return. And he laments losing his temper on a 1995 show that revolved around the Ku Klux Klan. A visibly angry Springer ordered one of the Klan members to get off the stage.

But he is unmoved by politicians or other critics who say he is a sleaze peddler.

“I really don’t take it personally,” says Springer. “It’s great that these folks are speaking out. They are entitled to do so, just as long as they understand that this is America, and they don’t have the right to tell people what to watch.

“I don’t think my show is sleazy. I don’t have people screwing on screen. We bleep out the bad language. We never have knives or guns. It’s tame compared to most shows. For those who knock it, it’s just a headline for them. And that’s OK. Apparently people like it. They vote every day.”

Springer smiles. “I don’t want to be defensive about the show,” he says. “In time, people will get it. The kids already get it.”


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