Reports have surfaced that What a surprise! many of the fistfights on the syndicated “Jerry Springer Show” are staged and the guests are actually coached. Springer denies those horrific charges, but then notes: “To be on our show, you have to be outrageous, or your situation has to be outrageous.”
The same week that statement was made, ABC canceled the series “Ellen” one year after the lead character portrayed by Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian. That single coming-out episode was seen by 36 million people, but this season the show’s ratings nose-dived in part, say critics, because of the heavy-handedness concerning gay themes. Last week, DeGeneres verbally assaulted ABC Entertainment Chairman Stu Bloomberg and later claimed that the network hadn’t adequately promoted the show. ABC officials deny the charge.
Here we go again morality plays that bump up against sound business decisions. That it happens to involve television shouldn’t disguise the bottom-line reality: If a product is popular, it will be kept in stock; if it isn’t, it will be lifted.
And right now, Jerry Springer happens to be a lot more popular than Ellen DeGeneres.
Of course, this is not necessarily a reflection of good taste. It’s a given that society has become increasingly rude, crude and prone to violent outbursts, staged or otherwise. Connecting all that to television, however, is a long leap. Television is no more responsible for society’s ills than automakers are responsible for reckless driving.
The good news is that public opinion over these stories seems more bemused than outraged. When word surfaced of the Springer show’s alleged staging, the most popular comparison was made to professional wrestling long a bastion of phony pratfalls and grudges. Oh sure, a few academics did their requisite hand-wringing about the decline of contemporary culture, but the hubbub has pretty much died down.
As for DeGeneres, there were expressions of disappointment among a few lesbian organizations over the cancellation of “Ellen,” but the biggest outcry seemed to come from the star herself. “I was fired because I’m gay,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “I think ABC got pressure from all these groups of people, and they collapsed. They basically sabotaged the show.”
Such a conclusion, of course, belies the increasing presence of gay characters in both television and the movies. It also runs counter to the failure of these same pressure groups to get shows like “Dawson’s Creek,” “South Park” and “NYPD Blue” off the air. “Ellen” wasn’t canceled because of any right-wing influences; it was canceled because it’s No. 45 in the ratings.
And before lamenting too much on the fall of civilization and how television is largely to blame it should be remembered that the age of cable has provided viewers with an array of choices unimagined 20 years ago. For all the nonsense about cross-dressing and sex addicts, there’s plenty of thoughtful stuff available every day of the week whether it’s concerts, movies, documentaries, C-SPAN, news or even sitcoms and it’s available because there’s a marketplace demand for it.
Which is just the way it should be.