There was a time when Jerry Springer only had to worry about the wayward punch of a show guest. But, as his program has ascended to the top of the daytime ratings, the host has been busy bobbing and weaving around a barrage of critical blows from all comers ("Them's Fightin' Words," Calendar, April 5).
In response to the pummeling, Springer and his producers have promised to tone down the brawling portion of the program. Predictably, commentators are forecasting a quick descent down the Nielsen charts for the show; many of those eulogies have been issued with an emphatic "good riddance."
But, Springer's critics have missed an important--and much more positive--aspect of the program's enormous appeal to television viewers. The straightforward candor of Springer guests has offered a refreshing change of pace for Americans weary of the endless spin being cycled, 24 hours a day, down the dial on the all-news talk shows.
With two new all-news channels, TV news talk has become more ubiquitous, but not any less predictable. For the past several months, the news networks have assembled panel after panel showcasing the current political "bizarro world" where Republicans defend the media, Democrats attack sexual harassment laws and segment producers know they can always find plenty of advocates from both sides to argue that day is night. By now, most regular TV viewers could be booked to role-play the comments of former White House special counsel Lanny Davis (for the left) or Paula Jones' former spokesperson Susan Carpenter-McMillan (for the conservatives).
Things are so numbingly lock-step that Dick Morris, now liberated from reflexive consultant spin, has stood out as a font of frankness. On one recent pundit panel, Morris playfully chided his fellow guests that if they were discussing the foibles of a Republican president, each would be arguing the exact opposite side. For viewers, the daily, never-give-an-inch "commentary" can not only be enervating to watch, but, more important, tends to erode the credibility of all political discourse.
It's therefore not all that surprising Americans might embrace the no-holds-barred, guileless honesty of Springer's guests, particularly when the topics ("I'm Hiding a Sexy Secret," "Older Man, Younger Woman") aren't so far afield from what they're debating on news talk shows a click away on the remote.
On "Jerry Springer," there is no spinning (verbal anyway). The audience is allowed to ask anything, and guests, amazingly, reply fully. No one ever refuses to "parse" a question or declines to respond "on advice of counsel." None of the answers have been focus-grouped.
Just like the eponymous show of another Jerry, "Seinfeld," people say what they mean. Even if it's mean. Everyone ends up fessing up, then faces the public opprobrium and shame of the studio audience and the millions at home.
Wouldn't even Springer's critics, such as former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, welcome such similar forthrightness from President Clinton about his relationships?
Despite the host's tongue-in-cheek protestations to the contrary, "Jerry Springer" is not good for America.
But, the show's popularity should also be seen as a more sanguine signal that the viewing public, caught in a dizzying world of spin, is desperately looking for candor from something on television.