TV

Springer's success formula: 10 percent

CHICAGO — 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. Although 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, we went to Springer headquarters on the second floor of Chicago's neo-Gothic NBC Tower.

The six green rooms where on-air guests are held before the show are off-limits to non-guests and allow guests to be separated by gender and story lines. Inside the rooms, the guests work 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 this day's show.

Several weeks ago, Chris called producers. He has been intimate with a neighbor, Tamika, who is married to Craig. Chris works with Craig. Chris is married to another woman, Jenny.

Producers flew all four to Chicago, paying airfare (same plane, separated seats), lodging (separate rooms) and a food allowance.

Chris insists his story is "all legit," although producers asked him to emphasize certain plot points to better move the story along.

Why would he want to air his dirty laundry on national television?

"It's something new," said Chris, 28, 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 tragedy in 1995 — when a secretly gay man was killed after confessing that 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.

Inside Springer's office, 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 paso dobled his way into American hearts. Then he was tapped to host America's Got Talent on NBC.

The public softened, and with it grew the perception that Springer the person is different from Springer the persona.

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."

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