- Holly Honderich
- in Washington
As the 21st season aired near its end, Jerry Springer stood between the two sisters on the soundstage.
One was stripper Charlynne, who confessed on live television that she had slept with her sister Christina’s boyfriend. The pair screamed and fought. At one point in the segment, Christina ripped a large chunk of Sharlyn’s blonde weave.
Wearing glasses in a pink shirt and gray suit, Springer approached, brushed his hair, and looked confused, as if in disbelief that the confusion had continued.
But that episode, called “You Sleeping With My Sister,” was typical programming for Springer’s eponymous talk show. Despite critics dismissing the show as cheap and exploitative, it was outrageous, profane and glamorous to the millions of Americans who embraced Springer. And some experts say it was the sensational programming that helped lay the foundation for today’s media landscape.
“It’s called the Jerry Springer effect,” said Cooper Lawrence, a journalist and psychologist who has written extensively on celebrity culture. “He opened the door to the idea of reality programming…for Real Housewives and the Kardashians. He was the father of it all.”
Springer, who died Thursday at the age of 79 after a brief illness, served as mayor of his hometown of Cincinnati before leaving politics for journalism.
He joined Cincinnati station WLWT-TV and launched The Jerry Springer Show in 1991. The Los Angeles Times called it “A highly self-important talk hour featuring a Cincinnati newscaster and former mayor.”
Within a few years, however, the show had changed. Physical violence, sex and bonkers drama take center stage in his 27 seasons and nearly 5,000 episodes of Springer, with episode titles including Trailer Park Queen Hoedown, Maid of Honor Sleeps with the Groom, and Pumping Out My Life. Such as Lover’s Cousin.
The Jerry Springer Show reached nearly 8 million viewers in 1998 and once surpassed the Oprah Winfrey Show, becoming the rating powerhouse.
“Jerry was loved … he was showing real people doing real things,” Lawrence said. “Oprah had Tom Cruise in a carriage and Jerry had a man who cut off his penis. I want to know why that man castrated him. Tom Cruise doesn’t care.”
From the central premise of Springer’s shows, real people doing real things, to today’s reality show hits, the Real Housewives franchise, and popular shows like Love is Blind and Married at First Sight. Some people draw a line.
“People watch the Jerry Springer show and say, ‘Oh, those people are trash, they hit each other and threw chairs at each other.’ I do things,” Lawrence said.
But Springer’s legacy also includes the racist, homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic stereotypes his shows have often influenced.
Jennifer Posner, media critic and author of Reality Bites Back, said, “Springer believes that American television has made poverty, prejudice, and misogyny not problems to be solved, but ridiculed and parodied by others. She said that vulnerable people were used as “the butt of a joke”.
Springer himself has sometimes tried to distance himself from the show.
“I’ve always said it’s ridiculous. It’s just camp. It’s chewing gum. It’s escapism time. It’s not really worth it,” he once said.
But despite his sometimes offensive content, the veteran host managed to avoid cancellation. He joined and hosted America’s Got Talent.
“The Jerry Springer show is a product of a certain era when mainstream network television thought it was very appropriate to make a strong case for bigotry and misogyny,” Pozner said. There are different kinds of perceptions among the general public that certain kinds of things are socially unacceptable if you’re an intelligent person.”
Springer may have also been saved by the absence of social media, she said. His reign was many years before media consumers had direct contact with the media his creators.
“Social media has created a pipeline that allows the average audience to respond to media producers,” says Pozner.
“In 1991, if you didn’t like what you saw on Jerry Springer, you said it to TV. And TV didn’t listen to you.”