Jerry Springer: Pioneer or Pariah?

Television personality Jerry Springer in 2011

Television personality Jerry Springer in 2011
Philo Farnsworth is widely considered to be the principal inventor of television. He was not only a genius, he was also a visionary, and he shared that vision with his wife Pam one afternoon in 1926, while the couple was driving up the California coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco. In his book, “The Last Lone Inventor”, Evan Schwartz recounted that conversation, in which Philo told Pam that “Television would become the world’s greatest teaching tool. Illiteracy would be wiped out, and viewers would be able to watch news as it happened.” Philo also told Pam that television would bring about world peace. 

Pride of authorship aside, Farnsworth believed that his invention had value and he was right. Fortunately, he didn’t live long enough to see how that visionary value would be abused. Farnsworth died in 1971, the same year that 27-year-old Jerry Springer resigned from Cincinnati’s city council after it was discovered that he had paid prostitutes for sex. It was a harbinger of sleaze to come. Twenty years later, Farnsworth started spinning in his grave when Springer launched a talk show that was anything but a great “teaching tool”. Unlike Philo’s invention, Springer himself once admitted that his show had “no real value”. And yet, The Jerry Springer Show lasted for 27 years, and by 1998 he had bounced Oprah Winfrey (whose show had value) from atop the ratings. Jerry Springer died of pancreatic cancer on April 27. He was 79 years old.

Springer was not the first television personality to broadcast valueless content. Joe Pyne did it from 1964 to 1969, followed by Sally Jesse Raphael, Geraldo Rivera, and Morton Downey Jr. in the 1980s. And when he started his show in 1991, Jerry had competition from the likes of Maury Povich and Jenny Jones. But it was Springer who elevated trash talk TV to an art form, by presenting such themes as, “Stop Pimping My Twin Sister”, “I Married a Horse”, “I’m Happy I Cut off My Legs”, and “I Cut off My Own Genitals”.

Early on Springer defended giving a forum to every kind of dysfunctional weirdo imaginable, and he refused to accept responsibility for the brawls that ensued or the cumulative effect his shows would have on viewers. Commenting for his best-selling video, Too Hot for TV, Springer said, “Television does not create values. It’s merely a picture of all that’s out there — the good, the bad, and the ugly.” Strictly speaking, Jerry’s assessment was correct, but by giving a voice to those who comprise that “picture”, he propagated and popularized their dysfunction, thus lowering the bar for what is acceptable in a broadcast setting. And that brings me back to value.

In 1957 the Supreme Court determined in Roth v United States that for something to be considered obscene, the material must be utterly without redeeming social value. Clearly, there is absolutely no redeeming social value to interviewing someone who married a horse or pimped someone’s twin sister. So, how then could a bona fide obscenity like The Jerry Springer Show have remained on air for so long?

One reason is money. Springer and the TV stations that aired his show made lots of money. The other reason is viewership. Not only did Jerry’s show appeal to less-educated people, it was also a guilty pleasure for highbrow folks as well. As professors Charles McCoy of SUNY-Plattsburgh and Roscoe Scarborough of University of Virginia noted in a 2015 article for, “Many cultured viewers feel quite badly about watching trashy television, but they can’t seem to stop themselves. It’s like being unable to look away from a car crash.”

Nevertheless, I believe that Springer’s chair-throwing, cursing, brawling TV show had a long-term negative impact on the nature of public discourse in our country. Today it has become commonplace for folks to air their dirty linen on TV, or to berate a store clerk, or to yell, “Liar!” at the President of the United States. True, Jerry Springer isn’t responsible for our values, but he made it fashionable for us to act like assholes whenever we felt the need to do so.  

Springer often referred to his show as “stupid”, “camp”, and “an hour of escapism”. But in later years he also came to grips with his legacy, seeming to be apologetic, if only in a joking manner. Appearing on David Yontef’s podcast, “Behind the Velvet Rope”, Jerry said, “I just apologize. I’m so sorry. What have I done? I’ve ruined the culture. I just hope Hell isn’t that hot because I burn real easy. I’m very light-complected and that worries me.”

What Philo Farnsworth invented had real value. What Jerry Springer did with that invention had, in his own words, “no real value”. May both men rest in peace no matter where they are now.


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