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Inside Springer Nation
The Tribune's Kevin Pang goes backstage in an effort to find truth amid all the tackiness
September 30, 2008
By Kevin Pang | Tribune reporter
Jerry Springer knows your pain. He empathizes. You're right: Your man done you wrong, that other woman's a home-wrecker.oh, don't mind the 200 people in the room chanting you're a dirty ... .so yes, how dare he! Why don't you kick off your high heels and slug that son of a gun?
In a world of ambiguity, "The Jerry Springer Show" offers clarity. And the occasional punch in the face.
The show has endured 18 years, 3,500 episodes and enough philanderers to fill St. Peter's Square. Though Springer won 10 local Emmys beginning in the 1980s for his work as a Cincinnati newscaster, the "Springer Show" has yet to be nominated for one.
But can its impact on popular culture.one can argue good or bad.be measured by gold-plated statues?
Searching for the answer to that question, we went to the belly of the beast, into the heart of darkness that is Springer headquarters. In this quest for greater meaning, a show taping yields several fundamental truths about the human condition.
On the second floor of Chicago's neo-Gothic NBC Tower, there is the soundtrack of ringing phones. Of gurgling water dispensers. The disproportionate gorgeous-intern-age-woman-to-every-other-employee ratio. There's the Springer on-air security team, off-duty Chicago cops in tight-black T-shirts who acknowledge your presence with a "how ya doin" and a tiny lift of the chin.
The six green rooms where on-air guests are held preshow are off-limits to non-guests and allow guests to be separated by gender and story lines. Brief glimpses inside reveal guests working with the wardrobe and makeup department. For one day, these Everymen and -women are treated like Hollywood stars.
"I've been watching the show religiously for 15 years," says Chris from Marion, Ind., last name withheld because he is a guest on today's show (producers refused to give us his full name.perhaps his real name).
Some weeks ago, Chris called producers to tell his sordid tale. He has been intimate with a neighbor, Tamika, who is married to Craig. Cue shocking story line twist: Chris works with Craig. Cue shocking twist No. 2: Chris is married to another woman, Jenny.
Producers loved his story, and flew the party of four to Chicago, paying for airfare (same plane, separate seats), hotels (separate rooms) and a food allowance.
Pressed about the truthfulness of his story, Chris insists it's "all legit," though producers asked him to emphasize certain plot points to better move the story along.
So why, then, would he want to air his dirty laundry on national television?
"It's something new," said the 28-year-old Chris, wearing a crucifix necklace. "And if it happened on the streets [having his adultery revealed outside the show], it would have been five times worse."
After the infamous "Jenny Jones Show" incident in 1995.when a secretly gay man was killed after confessing he was attracted to his male best friend.the Springer show makes sure there are no surprises.
For guests to appear, producers must disclose to them that during the show a secret will be revealed. For legal reasons, producers must read to the prospective guests four possible revelations over the phone, one of which is the correct answer. They consult a sheet of 21 possible secrets.your wife's cheating with another guy, your man is secretly gay, your girlfriend wants a third person in bed, and so on.
"The people who come on our show are fans of the show, so they know what they're getting into," says Rachelle Consiglio, newly named executive producer. In another office, producer Nicole Toalson dials telephone number after number of potential guests. The show receives 5,000 calls and e-mails each week. Only 2 percent will turn into an on-air segment.
Toalson is at once inquisitive and ingratiating. The shock of asking such personal questions has worn off, but she still asks as though she's dishing with her best friend. "Is he still having sex with Stacy?" Toalson asks a caller, jotting in a spiral notebook.
"When's the last time you slept with him?"
"Do you still love him?"
Then there's Springer's office, the grand poobah's lair. Two conclusions can be drawn from the various tchotchkes: He's a die-hard Yankees fan, and he enjoys the occasional cigar.
In the mid-'90s, Springer came on the national scene like a sucker punch, the forerunner of broadcasting dysfunctional behavior. For much of this decade, though, ratings have fallen.the show has lost half its viewers since 2002, averaging 1.7 million viewers last year. Then " Dancing With the Stars" came calling two years ago, and Springer pasodobled his way into American hearts. After his fifth-place finish, he was tapped to host "America's Got Talent" on NBC. It was this summer's highest-rated show.
The public softened, and with it grew the perception that Springer the person is different from Springer the persona.
"There's nothing crazy about me personally. I'm playing a role," Springer says. "If I had a role in the movies as a gangster, that wouldn't mean that I'm a gangster."
But what does his show mean in the grander scheme?
Springer explains: "It's about people caught in outrageous situations. I've never met a person that couldn't, at one moment in their life, have been on our show." He goes on: "Ninety percent of us would never go on a talk show. But 10 percent would. And 10 percent of America is 30 million people. That's a lot of shows."
Springer's office is 350 steps from the studio, where 200 audience members on this day are seated and prepped. Applaud, yell, make a lot of noise, they are instructed.
The show begins, and you know how it goes. Two women, one man, or vice versa. Infidelity is revealed, followed by audience jeers. The obligatory fight breaks out, and Pavlovian responses have trained audience members to chant, "Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry!" This happens six times during the one-hour taping.
(Side note: The Tribune photographer ran into four of the guests who an hour earlier were throwing punches at each other's heads. Asked if what transpired onstage was real, one replied: "Nah, it's fake. It's all fake." Immediately, a producer ordered them to stop talking. Show officials would later defend the validity of story lines.
("We've been on so long, of course people might juice up their stories, throw in an extra detail," Consiglio said. "But we do the best we can to keep the stories as legitimate as possible.")
Real or not, these people, the proletariat, the supposed dregs of society? They are us. They are among us. They're our neighbors, postal workers and grocery clerks.
Springer says: "If this were a celebrity show, I would have no interest in it. What I like are people who aren't famous and their interactions in life. I'm very comfortable with that."
The catharsis, perhaps, is this: Viewers watch and think, "My life may not be perfect, but at least I'm not them."
But we could be. That's what keeps us watching.
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