Express View on Jerry Springer: He helped launch the enduring reality television phenomenon
A few months before he died on Thursday at the age of 79, television personality Jerry Springer startled fans by issuing an apology on air. “I’m so sorry. What have I done? I’ve ruined the culture. I just hope hell isn’t that hot,” he said. In his use of the word “culture”, was there a hint of a boast, a nod to his leading role in shaping the future of entertainment? Perhaps. It would be churlish to deny Springer his due: It was, arguably, the launch of The Jerry Springer Show in 1991 — featuring all manner of lurid drama, with guests unafraid to confess, scream and fight on camera — which kickstarted the reality television craze that changed the way entertainment was created and consumed.
Indeed, reality television expanded the very definition of entertainment. Scripted stories and performances by trained or experienced artists could not hold up against the onslaught of shows featuring ordinary people who had been picked to be on TV screens for no reason other than that they were willing to be loud and badly-behaved. As Springer’s show demonstrated — with later TV series such as the Big Brother franchise (including the Indian version, Bigg Boss), Survivor and The Real Housewives franchise — nothing is quite as captivating as the real life drama of such deeply private matters as lying and cheating. Glamour and wealth, as seen in hit shows such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians, simply sweetened the mix.
While critics and discerning audiences have lamented the rise of “low-brow”, unsophisticated television, it is hard to argue against the genre’s continuing, overwhelming popularity. No doubt the biting satire of The White Lotus and the nuanced exploration of human nature in Better Call Saul are thrilling to watch. But the guilty pleasure of witnessing the back-biting and betrayals on Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives is undeniable. That Springer understood this long before others did is to his credit.