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‘Jerry Springer Show’ to Knock Out the Violence

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The owners of the “Jerry Springer Show,” which in the last few months has become the nation’s top-rated syndicated talk show while it has been embroiled in controversy over the brawls among its panelists, said Thursday that it will eliminate all physical violence from the series.

“We are getting out of the fighting business,” Greg Meidel, chairman and chief executive of Studios USA, which produces and distributes the show, told The Times. “This show will not be a boxing match.”

Meidel, who had said last month that the violence on the show would be toned down, made the stronger, unequivocal pronouncement a few hours after he and executives at WFLD-TV in Chicago, which will begin airing “Springer” next month, met with several Chicago religious leaders upset about the fights, obscene language and nudity on the broadcast.

Although Meidel said the no-violence policy would take effect with the June 8 broadcast, participants at the gathering said they were told that the fights would be edited out of taped shows that have yet to air this month.

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The decision marks a complete reversal from the unapologetic stance Springer and the show’s producers had only a few months ago about the show’s content.

Springer and Executive Producer Richard Dominick, who developed the confrontational format, were out of town and did not attend the meeting. They were both unavailable for comment on the Studios USA decision. Springer recently signed a contract to continue hosting the show for five more years.

Several industry insiders predicted that the decision may be the beginning of the end for the show’s big ratings, which in recent weeks have surpassed those of long-standing talk-show champ Oprah Winfrey. Eliminating the fights and brawls will remove the very element that has distinguished “Springer” from the rest of the talk show heap, they said.

“They’re not only out of the fighting business, they’re out of the ratings game,” quipped one major rival syndicator.

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Meidel’s meeting with the disgruntled religious leaders was the latest in a volcanic furor that has surrounded Springer and the production company since the show first passed Oprah in February. In the last month, “Springer” has been criticized by U.S. legislators, called an embarrassment to the television industry by ABC Inc. President Robert Iger and accused by former guests of scripting the on-air fights--an allegation denied by Studios USA.

Barry Diller, who took control of Studios USA in February--it formerly was the television division of Universal Studios--also was reportedly embarrassed and unhappy with the controversy surrounding the show, and sources said he pressured studio executives as late as this week to eliminate the slugfests.

Despite the timing of the announcement, Meidel maintained that the change in policy was not due so much to external pressure as it was to a decision by studio executives to “evolve” the show.

“We don’t want to take away from the show--we just think that Jerry will be able to do this show a different way,” Meidel said. “It will still be confrontational, it will still be unpredictable, you will still sense the conflict. You will still see yelling and screaming. But we’re not going to show anyone getting hit.”

Selma Brown, an officer with the Community Renewal Society, a church-based group that attended the meeting in Chicago on Thursday, said the religious leaders were only somewhat satisfied with the removal of violence.

“We’re glad for the partial victory,” Brown said. “But we still want to end the obscenity and the degradation of women on the show.” She said another meeting with studio and station officials was scheduled for July.

The decision by Studios USA brought varying reactions from industry executives.

Don Corsini, general manager of KCAL-TV Channel 9, which airs “Springer” weekdays at 11 a.m. and 11 p.m.--it tops the local ratings from 11 to midnight--said he didn’t think the popularity would decline: “Right now ‘Jerry Springer’ is a phenomena. I’m really not concerned at this point. I don’t believe the lack of violence will make any difference. The show has moved beyond that.”

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Others, however, said the show would suffer greatly.

Said Larry Lyttle, president of Big Ticket Television, which produces the syndicated “Judge Judy,” “I think it will have a profound effect. The core of devoted followers for the show might feel betrayed because they bought into this reality. If that audience feels that way, they will lose them immediately.”

One syndicator said that the producers of “Springer” “can’t continue the way they were, because there would be no advertisers and, in every market, angry groups would raise their heads in protest. But now they may lose their audience.”

The executive added that “Springer” may have been a victim of its own success: “The mistake they made was passing ‘Oprah.’ No one would have ever noticed what was going on. But once that happened, folks started paying attention.”

Financial experts said that even if “Springer’s” ratings drop, the economic impact on Studios USA would be relatively minor. Even with the show’s booming viewership, major advertisers were still leery of buying time on the program.


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