T Dog Media Blog Think Tank: Ten years later….

Gather around my children, and let me tell you a story about when journalism jumped the shark….

A month ago, radio personality Don Imus was fired for racially insensitive comments about the mostly black Rutgers’ womens’ basketball team, and it opened a debate on race as well as an examination of the radio industry.

But it was ten years ago this month, that a somewhat similar situation (minus the race) opened a debate on journalism and the TV industry, one that still rages on today.

Talk show host Jerry Springer was asked by the management of NBC-owned WMAQ-TV in Chicago to deliver commentaries for the station’s 10 p.m. newscast, a job he did at NBC affiliate WLWT-TV in Cincinnati for several years in addition to his anchoring duties.

After all, Springer was successful as a commentaor and news anchor at WLWT, which had the No. 1 news at 11 p.m. in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Only problem was, he wasn’t known as a trash-talk host back then as he was in 1997. Springer’s talk show started in 1991 at WLWT and moved into Chicago’s NBC Tower (home of WMAQ-TV) in 1992. Ratings started quite low.

A year later, Ricki Lake launched a raunchy-type talk show that drew in young female viewers in droves. She beat Springer decisively in the ratings, and his show seemed all but done.

As a result, Springer dumped the feel-good shows in 1994 and did more controversial topics and went after the same young female demo that Lake had. But Springer took it a step further. While Ms. Lake toed the line on fights and wild antics, Springer decided on a free for all format which featured all of that and the kitchen sink. Springer passed Lake in the ratings by 1997.

And so, in order to boost ratings for WMAQ’s newscast,(which already ranked a strong second to ABC-owned WLS-TV’s news – and to bring more young viewers to the station), General Manager Lyle banks and news director Joel Cheatwood decided to make Springer a part of the news team – as a commentator – at 10 p.m. starting May 5, the fifth night of the May sweep.

Carol Marin, then co-anchor of WMAQ’s 10 p.m. newscast, objected. She complained to station management about the decision to put Springer on the news set. Finally, she decided that she has had about enough. She resigned on May 1, giving her final newscast that night. (Her fellow co-anchor, Ron Magers, left a few days later.)

Protests at the station soon followed, led by Rev. Michael Pflager, who leads the congregation at St. Sabina Church on Chicago’s South Side. He believed management’s decision to give Jerry Springer a commentator job at the station was wrong, given the content of his trashy TV show.

Springer lasted just two nights as commentator at the station. Both commentary pieces – one on free speech and another on the Catholic Church were roundly criticized. WMAQ’s ratings at 10 dropped as a result of the controversy, and later that year, the station’s management changed – with Larry Wert replacing Lyle Banks as the station’s GM, and the exit of the station’s news director, Joel Cheatwood.

So where do we stand ten years later?

Well, not much has changed. It’s the same junk on the local news every night – crime, celebrity news, overdependence on weather (just ask anyone in KC), and plenty of network tie-ins, but not enough on issues people care about, like education and health care. And coverage of neighborhood issues are often exploited, providing little substance behind the stories. Nobody wants to see their neighborhood or town get dragged through the mud on a nightly basis. That’s the prejudice we South Siders and South Suburbanites have to put up with every day.

And worst of all, the antics are turning off a new generation of viewers. Most people in the 18-34 demographic avoid newscasts (national and local) altogether, preferring to get their information on the internet and other alternative sources. Ratings for local news continue to drop as viewers are fleeing networks’ prime-time schedules. WFLD-TV’s lame attempt to speak to this audience, a new 10 p.m. newscast called “The Ten” is a joke that most young viewers see though.

Local news, especially in large markets, are an insult to the communities they serve.

And the cable news networks are no better. In fact, their “news” shows are about as bad as Springer’s. Nothing but propaganda, shouting, insults, and put-downs. The only thing missing are the fights and the saucy topics. They promote uncivil discussions on polarizing topics because it earns them higher ratings and higher ad revenue. It’s basically train-wreck television – like Springer’s show. Much of today’s discussions of issues has basically become people yelling to get their point across and telling someone he/she is an idiot if he/she doesn’t agree with them.

Young people aren’t interested in the shouting matches and polarization that has come to define politics these days. That’s why they aren’t watching the cable news channels.

This is occurring as civility has clearly left American politics (though here in Chicago, it vanished in the ’80’s when “Council Wars” began.)

Yes, it was like this on Geraldo and the Morton Downey Jr. Show back in the day. But at least watching those shows were at best, fun as they were parodies of themselves. Today’s cable personalities don’t even come close, as they take themselves way too seriously. Even Geraldo has sold out, shilling for CNBC and later Fox News, obviously needing someone to tell him what to do.

So, Where are they today, you ask? Ron Magers is now top anchor at 10 p.m. on WLS-TV’s ratings dominant newscast. Carol Marin, after a failed attempt at a “serious” newscast at WBBM-TV in 2000 (a newscast more so geared to cultural critics than for anyone else) and at CBS News, is back at WMAQ-TV as a political reporter and is also on WTTW-TV’s Chicago Tonight.

Joel Cheatwood recently joined Fox News Channel (appropriately), and Lyle Banks founded Banks Broadcasting to buy TV stations, but he wound up with only one – a poor-performing WB and CW affiliate in Wichita, KS, which he recently sold to Schurz Communications, which already owns CBS affiliate KWCH-TV in the market.

As for Jerry Springer? well, he considered running for office. That didn’t work out, so he got his own political radio talk show, which aired on some Air America affiliates. He quit a few months ago, to focus more on his TV show and rebuilding his pop-culture status.

As for his talk show? It’s still going strong, though ratings aren’t as strong as they once were (but hey, we can say that for any show nowadays, can we?) The ratings have been trending up lately, though, and yes, all the trash-TV elements – the yelling, screaming, fighting, chair-throwing – it’s all still there. A spin-off called The Springer Hustle is airing on VH-1 and is promoted nightly on Entertainment Tonight. Springer’s as popular as ever. So much for the protests.

His show has also survived the Janet Jackson debacle at the Super Bowl three years ago, when the entire entertainment industry was under the microscope for racy material. While conservative groups singled out cable and the broadcast networks’ prime-time programming for indecency, Springer’s daytime show – which is by far more raunchy than any prime-time show put together – was largely ignored by these groups and came out unscathed.

Those cable talk show hosts on the news channels – though they personally hate Springer and his show, they should thank him. In fact, they owe it to him – if it weren’t for his show, the cable news channels wouldn’t have a blueprint to go on.

Yeah, thanks a lot Jerry. Thanks for nothing.