Jerry Springer changed TV forever. After 27 seasons, his daytime talk circus may be over.
In the early 1990s, a television talk show host with a carbon-copy Phil Donahue style but dismal ratings was walking with his producer down Chicago's Michigan Avenue. They had a problem.
At the time, dozens of similarly formatted programs were clawing for the same prize - the attention of middle-aged women sitting in front of a television during the afternoon - or at least the scraps of that prize left behind by Oprah Winfrey. She reigned supreme. Competition was fierce. It was hard to stand out.
Then the host had a eureka moment that changed television for good.
"Let's go young," Jerry Springer told his producer, suggesting his eponymous talk show lower its sights to a younger demographic of high schoolers and college students.
"We said, from now on, young people in the audience . . . young people on stage, young subject matter," Springer explained to Rosie O'Donnell in 2012. "Well, young people are just much wilder in their personal lives, much more open, much more emotional. So the show started to go crazy."
Ever since, Springer has been the reigning king of daytime talk, a lowbrow P.T. Barnum who took the format from Phil Donahue's sober issues-oriented discussions to fistfights, paternity tests, and episodes with titles like "I'm a Breeder for the Klan" and "I Married a Horse." Millions watched. Critics attacked, blasting the show for trafficking in exploitation, sexism and transphobia.
"Let's face it: the show deserves critics," Springer admitted to CNN in 1998, the year his ratings finally topped Winfrey, according to the New York Times. "It's a stupid show on television."
Now, after 27 seasons and nearly 4,000 episodes, Springer's television run could be ending. After months of cancellation rumors, this week the 74-year-old host discussed the program's fate with ET's Kevin Frazier. "We've stopped production of the show," Springer said, adding that a contract with the CW Network means older shows will continue to air. A handful of new episodes that have already been taped will also run in the future.
But there are no plans to shoot new episodes. "Whenever you make changes, it's sad," Springer told Frazier.
The news has prompted fans and haters alike to chew over the bawdy show's legacy. But any look back at Springer's tenure shows how much the host has not only changed television but pop culture.
If you chopped and diced Springer's own life into Springer-like episodes, you would get an interesting mix - maybe not "I Married a Horse," but the record of an eclectic time:
- "He Was Born In a London Tube Station During the Blitz."
- "Working In the Last Months of the Bobby Kennedy Campaign."
- "Mayor at 33."
- "I was Caught Paying a Prostitute with a Personal Check."
Springer's parents barely escaped the Holocaust. They were Polish Jews who left for London just before the Nazis closed the borders. He was born in London in 1944, and when Springer was 5 his family emigrated to New York City. After college at Tulane University, he received his law degree from Northwestern in 1968. A meeting with Robert F. Kennedy prompted Springer to join the New York senator's presidential campaign as a campus organizer.
Springer was staying at the University of Cincinnati when he got a phone call on June 6 that Kennedy had been assassinated in California. The news filled the young political operative with "disbelief, horror," he would tell Rosie O'Donnell decades later. "You can't love someone you don't know, but I did."
He stayed on in Cincinnati working as a lawyer and eventually winning a seat on city council in 1971 when he was only 27. He also became an active advocate on the national stage for lowering the voting age from 21 to 18.
But according to a 1991 Cincinnati Magazine profile, Springer was forced to resign in 1974 when he admitted to hiring a prostitute at a Kentucky health club. Two personal checks used as payment for sex tied him to the establishment after it was raided by the FBI, the magazine reported.
The sex scandal did not demolish Springer's political aspirations. He was reelected to council a year later, and then elected mayor in 1977. "Springer was an old-fashioned tax-and-spend liberal," Slate would later report. "He was a beloved figure around town, the smart young thing of Ohio politics."
After two terms and a failed campaign for Ohio governor, Springer launched a second act as a local television news anchor. Then, in September 1991, "The Jerry Springer Show" debuted.
The tone of the early days mimicked Donahue. The first episode was about reuniting a family. Jesse Jackson and Oliver North were early guests.
But it wasn't until Springer retooled the concept for the younger eyes that his audience ballooned. The program started featuring topics like "He Wants Her to Quit Bikini Contests" and "My Boyfriend Turned Out to Be a Girl." An edgier element was being invited to the studio from the far side of America's margins: cheating spouses, angry children, fetishists, and many quick to throw a punch while the cameras rolled and the crowd hooted.
"Springer sinks talk TV to new lows," the Associated Press said in 1994. In 2002, TV Guide named Springer's program the worst show in television history.
Springer's attitude throughout his prime years on television was to acknowledge the program for what it was.
"I can't do serious subjects," he told CNN. "I can't do normal behavior. It doesn't belong on our show. If someone calls our show with a warm, uplifting story, we send them to another show. I'm not saying they shouldn't be on television, but they shouldn't be on our show."
But Springer's soundstage was actually the birthplace of reality television; his warts-and-all socioeconomic voyeurism can be traced to "16 and pregnant" and "Jersey Shore;" the fistfights breaking out on nearly every "Real Housewife" reunion started with Springer. Plucking unknowns from the outskirts and placing them before a national audience - Springer was doing it well before "American Idol" and "The Voice."
Those threads tying so much of pop culture to Springer may prove to be the show's lifeline. Technically, the show has not been canceled. As the host told ET, past episodes will continue to run on CW for "another two, three years." If the audience watches, the network could renew its interest. "If it still continues to rate good, then they'll do some more," he optimistically said.