Esther Watson

Thank you Jerry Springer, pioneer of reality TV

  • From Spectator Life
Jerry Springer (Credit: Getty images)

Those of us who worship at the altar of reality television have Jerry Springer to thank (or to blame). 

Springer was an early pioneer of reality TV. His show was the beginning of the end of television as the world once knew it. You didn’t need to be talented or interesting or rich or even beautiful to garner attention. He brought a new kind of intrigue and voyeurism on to our screens – he showed people to people as entertainment. 

He made ordinary humanity extraordinary: shouting, screaming, even, on occasion, violence featured on his show

Despite beginning his career in politics, working for Bobby Kennedy before becoming the mayor of Cincinnati, Springer was best known for the self-titled Jerry Springer Show which ran for 27 years. Initially the show was straightforward: it focused on social and political issues. As the ratings grew the absurdity of the storylines grew.

In every episode, Springer created a sort of theatre of life. He took the Oprah Winfrey formula and turned it into something wilder and weirder. His success spawned the hundreds of reality shows that have followed. Without Springer, there would be no Big Brother, no Real Housewives, no Kardashians.

He made ordinary humanity extraordinary: shouting, screaming, even, on occasion, violence featured on his show. Real people, real grievances – it didn’t matter if it was actually fake. Fakeness was the reality. 

And Springer was, like all great reality stars, a great actor. His widespread popularity was because he conveyed humility so well. This was performative, of course, but it felt true, which helped him connect with millions of Americans. 

He was self-effacing and perceptive, almost priest-like. His avuncular little sermons – ‘Jerry’s Final Thought’ – oozed sincerity. Born in London, the child of Jewish emigres, Springer believed that much his life was down to luck: ‘In one generation my family went from annihilation [in the Holocaust]…to this ridiculously privileged life I live today because of my silly television show,’ he once said.

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