Conflict talk-show host starts new career as TV judge at 75

Why This Matters: Jerry Springer is getting the opportunity to reinvent himself in a daytime TV environment hungry for new content.

Jerry Springer is back! Well, he never really went away, but the 75-year-old returns this fall as the star of his own court show, the NBCUniversal-produced and distributed Judge Jerry.

He enters a court genre that includes the likes of CBS Television Distribution’s heavy hitter Judge Judy and the Judy Sheindlin-created Hot Bench, as well as new entry Protection Court, from Trifecta and Scott Sternberg Productions. Many court shows air that are not cleared nationally, such as MGM/Orion TV’s Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court and Couples Court with the Cutlers and several entries from Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios. But Springer brings something most TV judges don’t have right off the bat: nearly universal name recognition.

In Judge Jerry, which is cleared in 99% of the U.S. or in 206 markets, Springer will preside over people with problems. That doesn’t sound much different than what he did during 27 years of The Jerry Springer Show. This time around, however, he’ll be wearing black robes and sitting behind a podium. “What’s weird is that literally last Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of me becoming a lawyer,” the affable Springer said in an interview. “I was sworn into the bar on May 1, 1969. This is what I was trained to do, actually.”

After he graduated from Chicago’s Northwestern University with a law degree in 1968, Springer worked as a campaign adviser to one of his heroes, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy was assassinated that same year, and Springer returned to his hometown of Cincinnati. He went to work at the law firm of Frost & Jacobs.

Politics still compelled him, so he ran for Congress in 1970. He lost to the incumbent Republican but, never easily defeated, he turned around and ran for City Council. He won and served five terms — with a brief interruption in 1974 due to Springer having to admit he had hired a prostitute, an issue he later turned around and used as proof of his willingness to be straight with voters — before becoming mayor in 1977 at the age of 33.

He presided as mayor for five years before making an unsuccessful run for Ohio governor in 1982.

Still, the three major broadcasters came courting and Springer became anchor and managing editor at WLWT Cincinnati, then in last place in the ratings. His commentary segment, “Final Thoughts,” became especially popular. Within two years, the station had moved into first place, and Springer was winning Emmys.

In 1991, Springer debuted his own talk show, The Jerry Springer Show, which started as a longer form version of “Final Thoughts” but evolved into something closer to the show everyone came to know — controlled chaos full of screaming couples, jilted lovers and chairs flying through the air. (“Final Thoughts” remained a signature segment throughout all of Springer’s run.)

Ratings rose, and two years later the show was sold into national syndication.

The Jerry Springer Show changed owners several times over its almost 30 years, ultimately ending up at NBCUniversal and its Stamford, Connecticut, production hub. The show’s high point came relatively early in its run, when in 1998 it even beat Oprah Winfrey for 65 weeks. Springer finally quietly went out of production last summer, with repeats still airing on The CW in the afternoons and on some stations in syndication.

“Content-wise, The Jerry Springer Show had run its course,” Kerry Shannon, executive producer of both Springer and Judge Jerry, said. “It was the same love triangles over and over. But NBC has such a good relationship with Jerry that they wanted to find something else for him.”

The idea of Judge Jerry was pitched and the indefatigable Springer, who also records a weekly podcast in Cincinnati every week (and starred as Billy Flynn in a Broadway revival of Chicago in 2010), was game. “I was ready to retire when they came to me and said, ‘How’d you like to be a judge?’ ” he said. “I thought, ‘For the first time in 30 years I could use my mind again.’ ”

Judge Jerry isn’t in full production but some practice episodes have been shot and Springer has already found his groove. He spends one week researching the 30 cases he’s going to hear the next week, and then the next week taping. Each 30-minute episode includes two cases with subject matter drawn from small claims courts all over the country. Cases tend to be disputes over rent, traffic accidents, personal loans and so forth.

A New Kind of Reality

“This is the show I should have been doing from the very beginning,” Springer said. “I really enjoy it. These are real cases. People are very concerned about the outcomes because it’s their lives.

“My whole life I have been talking to regular, unfamous people about whatever issues. Even when I was doing local news … I was dealing with people. What haven’t I heard? Anyone can come up and tell me any kind of situation and I’ve heard it. Having had that experience, I’m very comfortable sitting on the bench.”

He said he hasn’t watched the other court shows because he wants to do his show his way. “I don’t want to try to be anybody else. If I have any advice to people who want to get into television, it’s just, ‘be authentic, be yourself, don’t try to be anyone else.’ ”

So far that advice has paid off for Springer, who’s been on TV for nearly four decades.

“Jerry is wildly popular,” Shannon said. “The audience still loves him and they are going to love him even more in this format.”

Judge Jerry premieres this September on TV stations around the country.

Related