It involved bringing out the irregular or peculiar from society’s peripheries – at least as popularly perceived at the time. Granted a national, broadcasting stage, various persons of despair would perform, if only for a spectacular, brief moment. Cue the chants of a studio audience and the threat of physical confrontation. And the late Jerry Springer, former news reporter and Cincinnati mayor, would be there, willing to market the performance and throw these samples of humanity upon screen and audience. Before the idea of incendiary, vapid reality television, there was The Jerry Springer Show.
It all began on the fifth-floor studio at Cincinnati, Ohio’s WLWT in September 1991. Initially, the program was fed by a tepid mainstream, with audiences to match. Topics included the big if often skirted around issues in the social Darwinian world of US culture: poverty, inequality, gun control. Put another way, these were topics that might fail to garner the ratings, inducing a vast yawn of boredom. It did not take long for Springer to shed the chrysalis of journalism.
By December 1997, a staff reporter for the Cincinnati Post would write that Springer had found himself “top of the trash heap,” even as others came and went. He had discovered the formula of “lived experience”, drawing upon the endless well of antagonism offered by his guests. It was one that did not align with the defenders of boredom, those like Pamela Paul, who claim that it “teaches us that life isn’t a parade of amusements.”
When Springer toured Tampa with his parade of amusements in the first half of 1998, Nielsen Media Research had already noted his popularity on the television set in the Tampa Bay area: delicious – for him at least – ratings of 140,000, up from 70,000, hardly a bad return given the 1.4 million homes in the Tampa-St. Petersburg TV market (Tampa Tribune, Mar 28, 1998).
The show arguably became so successful it began to become parodic, its own mirror of human caricature. It offered a platform for the pre-social media confessionals, with Springer being the interlocutor and medium. Participants hit an extra note in efforts to reach the depths of outrageous authenticity. The man who married a horse; the woman inclined to self-trepanation.
A feature of this was the frisson of violence, the spine-tingling sense that someone, on set, would get the living daylights kicked out of them. The issue of violence became a matter of some debate. It led the owner of The Jerry Springer Show, Studios USA, to vow in May 1998 that it would eliminate it on the show.
Springer thought differently. “The fans will determine what the show is,” he told an audience at a Beverly Hills shopping centre during a promotions tour. Besides, he coyly explained, “We’re still trying to figure it out. What constitutes a fight? Is it going to be a case where we can show someone pulling hair but not touching an earlobe?” (The Vancouver Sun, Jul 25, 1998). The minutiae of trash television can be remarkably detailed, albeit sodden with a distinct silliness.
Beyond the shock of the celluloid came the shock of the musical. Jerry Springer: The Opera, co-written by Richard Thomas and comedian Stewart Lee, showed that the talk show provocateur could enrage in other genres, even those not of his making. Powered by singing invectives, The Independent critic Kate Bassett thought much about its foul-mouthed, joking quality. “Think Handel, Verdi and Wagner, all afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome.” In 2003, the show also inaugurated the tenure of Nicholas Hytner as artistic director of London’s National Theatre. For his part, Hytner delighted in the production’s “violent marriage of high and low culture … vulgar chaos submitted to the disciplines of classic opera”.
A somewhat different reception met its BBC Two broadcast in January 2005. The God Squad were furious at content they deemed blasphemous (Christ admits, for instance, being “a bit gay”, and tells Satan “to talk to the stigmata”). The Corporation was deluged with 55,000 complaints. Stephen Green, the head of the advocacy group Christian Voice, urged “some 1,500 Christians … to stand up for their lord and saviour, mindful that he endured agonises for them”.
An attempt by Green in 2007 to initiate a private prosecution for the offence of blasphemous libel against the producer and broadcaster failed to convince both the district judge and High Court. The latter found that the Theatres Act 1968 and the Broadcasting Act 1990 prevented such an eventuality. Even assuming that the play proved to have material deeply offensive to some Christians, it attacked Springer’s television chat show, not religion per se. Nor did the performance threaten public order.
The central figure of the musical might well have commended the creators and producers of the show, but Springer conceded that he would not have written it. In what must surely count as dripping self-irony, he did not “believe in making fun of other religions or in saying things that could be insensitive to other people’s religions”.
Springer’s show was the vulgar precursor of the reality television world, where popularity only ever counts as a measure of outrage. Stupidity can be monetised, vulnerability exploited, and these things could be achieved theatrically, instinctively. That process is now being done, unbeknownst to many, by the tech giants of Silicon Valley and the ruthless use of surveillance capitalism. Human behaviour is no longer a televised commodity measured by viewer ratings; it has become a digitised, saleable property, drowning in a sea of clickbait.
Springer might well have been on to something when he stated in one of his “Final Thoughts” segments that the “loss of civility” was the logical consequence of the “price of reality”. That has left two stubborn legacies of the self-described “ringmaster of civilisation’s end”: the cult of anti-boredom, and its twin, the cult of the easily offended.