Jerry Springer Live!

Do Oprah, Phil, and Sally Jessy really have anything to worry about?

There’s one topic Jerry Springer doesn’t plan to cover: Politicians Who Pay Prostitutes with Personal Checks. “What I did 18 years ago wouldn’t even make a good talk show today,” he says, slumped on a sofa at WLWT after taping a program with a 12-year-old L.A. runaway, the mother who refuses to take her back, the man who gives her shelter, and a judge who comments on “tough love,” foster homes, counseling, and the alarming number of “street kids.” Now that’s a talk show. Springer’s, which premiered last September in L.A., Cincinnati and three other markets, will be seen in an estimated seventy, including seven of the top ten, this September.

Photograph courtesy Multimedia

“I’m apprehensive because I realize I could fail. I don’t like doing that. I worry about that. You’ve got all these people involved. Everybody’s saying, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be great.’ But that’s their job to say that.

“Not being in control scares me, because it’s been a long time since I’ve not been in control of what I’m doing. When I write a commentary, I know it’s going to work. It’s mine, and after a bunch of years, you figure people like it. Now all of a sudden I’m in the big leagues and I have no idea whether I can compete at that level.”

Since last fall, The Jerry Springer Show has been on what its syndicator, Multimedia Entertainment, calls a “slow rollout pattern.” The approach is simple. Make your mistakes in Cincinnati- Springer tripped while doing a show about child safety-before moving into the national spotlight. Don’t worry about ratings-the show failed to win its 10 a.m. time slot in Cincinnati during last November’s “sweeps,” beaten by Family Feud and Jeopardy on Channel 9—just get your act together.

At the first commercial break, producer Burt Dubrow bounded on-stage in a red flannel shirt, faded blue jeans and canvas tennis shoes, pounding his chest. as if his heart had stopped during Springer’s interview with the 12-year-old girl and her mother, a tall, telegenic blonde. While the two took an awkward stab at reconciliation, Springer sat on the edge of his seat, wringing his hands, apologizing for butting in with questions, and reading the cue cards—ARE YOU MEAN TO YOUR MOM?—that Dubrow flashed at him.

“What I am finding,” he says, “is that each show is a stretch, which is good. It’s so much more intellectually challenging than anchoring a newscast,” which Springer has been doing since 1984. “The news demands totally different skills. You write something and you read it off the teleprompter. You don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to anchor a newscast. Literally you can teach anyone to be an anchor. Give them a couple of weeks and they’ll either do it or they won’t. There’s nothing to that job.”

In his new job, he gets a “better than expected” grade so far from the 42-year-old Dubrow, who also produces Sally Jessy Raphael for Multimedia.

“You gotta remember that this is one of the most difficult jobs in America,” says the stocky New Yorker. “A lot of people have failed at it. There are so many balls to keep up in the air. You gotta be liked. You gotta know when to go to the audience. You gotta watch the people on stage. You gotta remember the guests up there and who’s gonna talk. You gotta remember how much time you have left and when to go to commercial. And there’s eighty-two people behind the camera [an exaggeration]. I mean, it’s nuts. Like walking up a down escalator, trying to get somewhere.”

It’s deja vu for Dubrow, who ten years ago was working in the same fifth-floor studio on the Bob Braun show when Springer joined Channel 5’s news team as a political reporter and com- mentator. “I saw an interesting mix of intelligence and humor,” he says, recall- ing how he borrowed Springer as a guest on Braun & Company until the news department, concerned his appearances might spoil the young commentator’s credibility, finally said no more. Ten years ago, Dubrow also discovered Sally Jessy, who, like Springer, had a humble Midwest “rollout” in St. Louis.

Dubrow got his start in television as an associate producer with The Mike Douglas Show in 1972, but harks back to the talk show stars of the 50s—Garry Moore, Arthur Godfrey and Dinah Shore to explain Springer’s appeal. “Those were likable people, and that’s kinda where I put Jerry. If you’re likable, half the battle is won. At least if they like you, they’ll turn on the TV.”

Who likes him?

Dubrow tells Springer that women do. They find him “extremely attractive,” “very kind of Ivy League,” “almost like a Ralph Lauren ad in a way,” and, well, what else would you expect the producer of a daytime talk show to say?

Esther Abrams, a 55-year-old widow from Norwood, loves him.

“Jerry’s cool, the same on-camera as off,” says Esther, a studio audience regular who goes by “Mom” and sometimes wears a button that says, “Warning: I Am Naked Under My Clothes.” On a show titled “I Beat My Husband,” Esther stood up and asked the female guest if PMS might be to blame.

They’ve tinkered with Springer’s image. The hair is parted the same, but shorter. The wire rims are rounder. People choose his suits and put on his makeup for him. “There are a million guys in New York we could have chosen,” says Dubrow, “who probably would have given their right arm for this job and paid us.”

But come September, he expects viewers in the Big Apple, Chicago, Washington, Houston, Atlanta and other new markets to discover Springer’s “‘vulnerability,” “compassion,” “soft” masculinity and Cincinnati “wholesomeness. “That’s when most of the stations begin picking up the show, when it becomes critical to “gather an audience,” as Dubrow refers to ratings.

Photograph courtesy Multimedia

Finding a niche in an already crowded market won’t be easy. Oprah and Donahue lead the pack, which includes Sally Jessy Raphael, Jenny Jones, Regis & Kathie Lee, Joan Rivers, Geraldo, Maury Povich and several evening talk shows. Oprah and Donahue are syndicated in more than 200 markets with average ratings of 9 and 6 respectively on the Nielsen scale. Dubrow will be happy-make that “overjoyed”—if Springer earns a consistent 3, which would place the show in the middle of the pack. If that happens, jests the producer, “the company will come to Jerry and me and ask, ‘Hi, anything we can do for you?”

But according to Dubrow, there is no magic number out there, no deadline for making the show a success. Most stations have signed on through next summer. The show is also part of Multimedia’s four-year, $75 million deal with NBC to broadcast Springer, Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael on network-owned and operated stations in several big-city markets.

Springer’s producer, Burt Dubrow, is the guy who discovered Sally Jessy Raphael. Like Sally Jessy, the Jerry Springer show was launched with a humble Midwest rollout”-a gradual pattern of premieres leading to the major markets.

“Historically,” says Dubrow, “a talk show does not succeed quickly. When you have a personality who is unknown, it takes a while for the public to find him.”

To sell a 48-year-old local TV anchor with an eagle beak and only four months’ experience as a talk show host, Multimedia packaged him with its stars, Donahue and Raphael, last January at the annual National Association of Television Programming Executives con- vention in New Orleans, where the show was picked up by thirty-five stations. “If I had to pick someone who’s setting the guidelines for where I can go,” Springer says, “it’s Phil. That’s not a knock on the rest of them, but I’m not gonna be Sally, or Oprah, or Geraldo.”

That’s not what Arsenio thinks. “‘You’ve never seen Jerry Springer?” the late-night talk show host asked after referring to the howling “Springer fanatics” in his L.A. audience. “Well, he’s like Sally.”

Is Springer being cast as a male Sally? Dubrow shakes his head.

“Nooooo…People ask me that question all the time. It’s enough to make me crazy. The best thing I can say is that Jerry will be Jerry. And right now, Jerry is not even Jerry because not enough people know who Jerry is. I remember when we first started Sally, we were con- stantly accused of making her a female Donahue. Now nobody says that.”

Springer jokes about his popularity in Cincinnati. Channel 5’s newscast has been No. 1 at 11 p.m. for five consecutive years. Readers of this magazine also have voted him Best Anchor five years in a row. “The public has no taste,” he says, straight-faced. “I didn’t understand it politically either. Why did that work? I started too young. I’m controversial. Too liberal. Too New York. Too Jewish. Too everything. If you were picking the perfect candidate for Cincinnati, Ohio, nothing in my resume suggested I would ever be successful in an election.”

He served five successive terms on City Council during the 70s and in ’77 was elected mayor with the largest plurality in the city’s history before los- ing to former governor Richard Celeste in the ’82 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

“The one experience I’ve had which I think helps me in this job is that I’ve spent my adult life in public, and I’m finding that I really draw upon my experience in politics. It’s like I’m back working the crowd at the town halls and ward clubs. You know, ‘Hey, how ya doin’. Right. Let’s take this question. Good point! Hey, we’re gonna get right on that.” That’s what I did as mayor.”

His contract with WLWT runs for two more years, which means if Multimedia and NBC move Springer to Chicago this fall as expected, the show’s host will become a Frequent Flyer. “It’s not even an issue,” he says. “This is home.”

A resident of Loveland, Springer is married with a 15-year-old daughter, born legally blind and deaf in one ear, who attends Sycamore High School. He describes himself as a “huge” sports fan, holding Bengals season tickets and trying to take in at least one Reds game a homestand. He plays golf at a public course in Goshen with Channel 12 sportscaster Ken Broo,  formerly with Channel 5. His handicap? “My ability.” He also says he works with United Appeal, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and the Leukemia Society, emceeing “a whole bunch” of charitable events.

Springer was born in England and quips that he left after learning he couldn’t be king. He was 5 when his mother and father, a toy manufacturer, immigrated to New York City. He earned a B.A. in political science from Tulane in 1965, a law degree from Northwestern in 1968, and after graduation, went to work on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign as a campus organizer. “I happened to be staying overnight at a guest dorm at the University of Cincinnati when I got a call that he had been shot and killed.””

He was 25 when he came to Cincinnati to join the law firm of Frost & Jacobs, who recruited him at Northwestern. But politics was in Springer’s blood. In 1970, he ran for Congress as an anti-war candidate, winning the Democratic primary in the Second District. Although losing to Republican stalwart Donald Clancy in the general election, he received an encouraging 49 percent of the vote, and the following year was elected to City Council.

He resigned in 1974 after testifying in federal court that he engaged in acts of prostitution at a Kentucky “health club” raided by the FBI. As evidence, he turned over canceled checks written to two prostitutes. But voters forgave him.

A folk singer and stand-up comedian in his younger years, Springer has thrived on a sharp wit and a flair for entertaining. As mayor, he was a guest on the Dinah Shore show and a commentator on WEBN. “The Springer Memorandum” aired daily for six consecutive years and was the forerunner of his popular commentaries on Channel 5. He composes the two-and-a-half-minute pieces on a legal pad, often over dinner at a local restaurant after the 6 o’clock newscast.

“I wouldn’t do the news if I couldn’t do commentary,” says Springer. “The other anchors in town are a helluva lot better than I am. I don’t have the right voice or the right look. I screw up my reads all the time. I’m not polished at all. But what I enjoy is thinking and writing about an issue.”

He routinely puts in fifteen-hour days, arriving at Crosley Square in his blue Bentley and taping either late mornings or early afternoons before “wiping off his smile” for the evening news. Springer makes the daily commute between the talk show stage and news desk sound as easy as the Sid Caesar gag where the comedian changes expressions by waving his hand across his face.

“When I’m doing the news and it’s a serious story, there is a serious look on my face because it IS serious. But even within a newscast, I’m not a robot. I laugh and clown it up a lot when I break for weather and sports. I can’t imagine Walter Cronkite, when he got up in the morning and wanted some orange juice, said, ‘Dear, please pass the orange juice,'” Springer says in the halting rhythm and voice of the former CBS anchor.

It’s also hard to imagine Cronkite tackling topics such as “I Spied on My Spouse,” “I Despise Interracial Couples,” “Sneaking Around With a Black Man,” “Men That Hate Women,” “My Mother Flirts With Me,” “Meddling Mother-in-Laws,” “I Hate Being Beautiful” and “Girls Dancing for Girls.”

That’s right. Lesbian erotic dancers in sequined bras, see-through black-lace tights and high heels, from a club called Lesbo A-Go-Go. The trio slithered suggestively across the stage for two minutes… A woman in the audience stood up and said, “They can do what they want to do, but stay away from my daughters.”…A student paying her way through college by erotic dancing, came out of the closet…A feminist guest wearing a jacket with fake fur tails, berated the lesbian go-goers as “freaks in a circus.”…Local comedian Drew Hastings, invited to give a male point of view, shook his head and lamented, “What a waste. I’m looking for Ms. Right and she is too.”

After the show, Springer walked over to an older man in the audience and asked, “Are you all right?”

As Post TV critic Greg Pacth observed after the “three-handkerchief** premiere last fall when a Hamilton woman was reunited with her long-lost son and daughter, Springer will not be revolutionizing the talk show genre. But he also won’t be doing anything to jeopardize his “bread and butter” job anchoring the news, such as dancing with the Chippendales, Springer promised.

“I lied,” he says with a shrug. (This must be the “blend of humor, insight and honesty” mentioned several times in his Multimedia press packet.) “When we first started, I WAS concerned. The Chippendales. What am I gonna do? Now I’m saying I was scared because everybody told me I should be, not because I really was.”

The subjects don’t bother him. Just some of the six-second promos he must read off the teleprompter: “They’re hot, they’re sexy and they’re beautiful. They’re lesbian go-go girls! They’ll show the sultry moves that are driving women wild….

The truth is, he liked Girls Dancing for Girls.

“I was real defensive about it and I felt awkward in the beginning, yet when it was over, I felt really good because I figured I may now have the skill to take a tough subject and give it respectability. “That one had to do with feminists, arguing among themselves as to whether this was an appropriate role to play, whether lesbians have the right to their own sexual expression or whether the fight of feminists over the last twenty years is to stop using women as sexual objects.

“But if we just had a lecture on the role of feminism, everyone would have gone to sleep. Almost without exception, every show I’ve done, when it was finished I’ve thought, “Okay, we dealt with it as adults. We didn’t sit there and giggle for an hour.”

“What I’m saying is, if they give me a racy subject, I promise you I try really hard to give it good treatment. We’re not just gonna be, Look at Naked People.”

Springer didn’t ask for the talk show. As he puts it, Walter Bartlett, chairman and CEO of Multimedia, just invited him to lunch one day and said, “We’re doing it and you’re the host.” He didn’t ask to become a broadcaster either. Channel 5 called him after the ’82 gover- nor’s race. “If I feel guilty at times, it’s because I didn’t ask for all of this. I didn’t fight someone else for it. They didn’t hold tryouts and I was the best. Tens of thousands of people out there could do it better…and they asked me. Now I’m going to work real hard because I don’t want to look like a fool. I want to do well.”

Cindy Schneider, the company spokesperson from New York who sets up his interviews because “Jerry doesn’t know he’s a national talk show host yet,” has been listening to him describe his guilt trip and adds, “He was a good person in his past life.”

“Or I was really bad,” counters Springer. “You get a bad life and a good life.”

This, he says, must be the good one.

This story originally appeared in our June 1992 issue.

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