Fourth Estate: Can We Talk?

“We are a Jerry Springer world,” declared Bill Maher in a skit for his ABC late-night show, Politically Incorrect. Spoofing President Clinton’s sex scandal with 24-year-old Monica Lewinsky, Maher hired Florence Henderson of Brady Bunch fame to portray Hillary Clinton.
“Where is that Beverly Hills 9021-ho?” spewed Henderson to thunderous applause, as a leather-clad Lewinsky look-alike, complete with her signature black beret, stormed the stage for a mock catfight. It was one of those zeitgeist moments, when the nexus of Jerry Springer and the White House inexorably intertwined, when the world as we know it would never be the same.
Not surprisingly, the latest Clinton scandal has sent TV ratings, along with magazine and newspaper sales, soaring. It proves what Springer and his ilk have long claimed: Sleaze sells.
“These days, we’re less risquƒ than the news,” deadpans Jim Benson, spokesman for Universal Television, which produces Springer’s syndicated slugfest. And daytime advertisers are taking notice.
According to an industry weekly, The Jerry Springer Show averaged a 5.8 rating and a 19 share for the November sweeps, second only to Oprah’s 8.1 rating and 21 share. Springer also edged a razor-thin lead ahead of the beloved ad-friendly queen of daytime, Rosie O’Donnell. Her show generated a 5.6 rating and 15 share.
Depending on whose research you trust, this is either a 74 percent or an eye-opening 100 percent increase from last year for Springer. Before his ratings went into orbit, the former Cincinnati mayor turned circus ringleader relied primarily on direct marketing advertisers. Now, companies are more willing to associate with the much-maligned Springer, including Global Insurance and Universal Studios.
“The wall of resistance is breaking down,” admits Dick Kurlander, vice president and director of programming for Petry Television. Why? Simple mathematics. With Springer, you get more for less. Ballpark figures for 30-second spots for his show hover around $30,000, while Oprah commands $85,000 and Rosie nets $60,000.
“Advertisers can ignore a controversial program when the program doesn’t have high ratings and it’s getting a 3 or a 4 rating. But when it’s getting 10 ratings and 4, 5 or 6 in demos [in some local markets], you can’t ignore it. More advertisers are participating,” Kurlander says.
In fairness, how can advertisers talk about broadcast standards when Barbara Walter lisps about semen-stained dresses and Ted Koppel pontificates about oral sex on Nightline? Turn on the television and Jay Leno and David Letterman lace their late-night comedy with titillating sex jokes about the President’s peccadillos.
Of course, not everyone is a Springer convert. Count Audrey Steele out. The vice president of strategic media resources for New York-based Zenith Media says her clients are shopaholics for daytime programs, but they don’t stop at Jerry Springer’s bargain basement store-despite his CPM.
“We care about the environment for our advertisers,” says the unflappable Steele. “The content of the show matters. There have been times throughout the history of news programs where there have been topics dealing with war or sex scandals. We chose not to advertise in them.” Steele adds that it’s the manner in which these topics are tackled that will determine her ad spending.
“Oprah or Rosie don’t shy away from delicate matters,” says Steele. “Ostensibly, it’s handled in a way where the objective is to help and instruct versus sensationalize.” Nonetheless, Steele concedes that Springer’s rise in ratings will give his producers ammunition to raise current ad rates. They’ll likely demand more for upfront sales this year-and get it. Indeed, his ability to ignite explosive ratings has made Springer a poster boy for counterprogramming.
Yet following William Bennet’s crusade to clean up daytime airwaves for impressionable children, the pendulum swung back to wholesome fare. No less a daytime deity than Oprah promised to clean up her act. Her vow coincided with the arrival of The Rosie O’Donnell Show, which Newsweek heralded as the return of Nice TV. Springer, the crown prince of crud, was denounced as passe.
But Springer stuck to his format, described by one writer as a “fist-flying trashfest, where secrets will be revealed, hair will be pulled and faces will be slapped.” The overloaded field of sensational talk shows, including Jenny Jones, retreated to more conventional pastures of makeovers and reunions, leaving Jerry alone in his mud-wrestling quest.
And there he’ll remain. The upcoming daytime talk shows, Roseanne, slated for June, and Donnie & Marie and The Howie Mandel Show, both debuting in September, will not be Springer clones. They’ll take their cue from ad-cozy Rosie, not volatile ad-climate Jerry.
“My show is not hoity-toity,” Springer told USA Today. “The viewers think we’re entertaining. If you watch a football game, do you just enjoy the touchdowns and plays, or also the point where the guy gets hit on the head when making a pass?” His philosophy has scored with some local stations, which are now paying a staggering 3,000 percent increase for carrying Springer, says Arthur Hasson, senior vice president of national sales at Universal Television. Though he guards their privacy, Hasson adds, “If they weren’t getting the ratings, they wouldn’t be paying the fees.”
But Tom Rosensteil, director of Excellence in Journalism, a Washington, D.C.-based media think tank, says bigger is an illusion. “We have warped perceptions of what big is. Even O.J.’s Bronco chase only got 30 percent of the overall viewing audience.”
Conventional wisdom claims Springer only attracts a low-rent, trailer-park troupe. Guess again. I’ve witnessed a show where a grotesquely obese man was being interviewed by Springer. All eyes in my newsroom darted from an important press conference to a monitor showing this outrageous display. Later, at an Upper East Side gym, the same people who discuss Seinfeld episodes in minute detail were teetering on their treadmills over this bizarre episode.
It is no surprise then that the show is marketed internationally as a comedy, with such titles as “Sexy Scenes Caught on Tape” and “Guests Reveal Their Secret Lovers.” Couldn’t these same titles be a promo for a Clinton exposƒ on Springer, Sally Jessy Raphael or Jenny Jones, a troika once linked to declining morality?
In many ways, Springer should thank Bill Clinton-and the president can thank him. Because infidelity is a staple of daytime television, the public is more forgiving of Clinton. Perhaps his approval ratings-up to 74 percent-prove that the public is ready to separate a politician’s job performance from his private life.
“In a way, pop culture has helped absolve him,” says Lisa Schiffren, a speechwriter for Dan Quayle. “The public has become jaded and almost cynical to such behavior.”
In fact, Clinton’s alleged choice of women-from Paula Jones to Monica Lewinsky-bears a suspiciously striking resemblance to the cast of characters regularly paraded onto Springer’s stage. No wonder Maher made the connection.
“Whether it’s the Clinton scandal on the news or The Jerry Springer Show, it’s riveting TV,” says Henry Schleiff, senior vice president of sales at Universal. Maybe the medium is the message.
-Jill Brooke is a CNN correspondent.