Kristen Baldwin
January 23, 1998 AT 05:00 AM EST

If television really is society’s barometer, then America’d better get ready for a riot.

The recent success of Jerry Springer’s daytime talk show/circus seems to indicate that public tastes are running to the confrontational. In the last year, the syndicated Jerry Springer Show, now in its seventh season, has ridden a flurry of hair pulling and sucker punching to its best numbers ever. In November, Springer surpassed The Rosie O’Donnell Show to become the second-highest-rated talk show in the country. And during Thanksgiving week, the former Cincinnati mayor and his pugilistic panelists did the unthinkable and beat out reigning talk queen Oprah Winfrey in the vital 18-to-49 demographic. ”There are ratings out there [for Springer] the likes of which I haven’t seen for 10 years,” says Dick Kurlander, vice president of programming at consulting firm Petry Television, adding that in the five markets where Springer goes head-to-head with Rosie and Oprah, he beats or ties their ratings. ”There are some markets where literally half the available female audience is viewing Springer.”

So what’s put the spring in Springer? Can you say bitch slapping, boys and girls? When Universal Television bought the show from Gannett in January of ’97, execs told Springer’s producers to stop editing out the wild fracases that had been happening all along but had rarely made it to the screen. (The show’s executive producer, Richard Dominick, says previous owners Gannett and Multimedia always asked for the fight footage to be cut.) ”The executives here figure the show is what it is,” says Universal TV spokesman Jim Benson. ”People want to see [the fights], so let them see it.” Two months after Springer went au naturel, as it were, the ratings started to climb. ”The show used to get around 2,000 calls a week,” says Dominick of potential panelists. ”Now we’re getting around 4,000.”

For his part, Springer, 53, couldn’t be happier with the wilder and woollier format. ”Our show is the craziest of them all,” says the man who caused a Chicago anchorwoman to quit her job in protest after he was brought in by her station as a news commentator last May. (Springer resigned shortly afterward.) ”I’m not saying normal behavior does not belong on TV — it just doesn’t belong on our show.”

Predictably, Jerry mania has begun to seep into pop culture at large. Springer has already appeared on an episode of The X-Files (the Nov. 30 Frankenstein show), on a Dec. 12 Tonight Show sketch, and on a Dec. 26 all-Springer episode of E!’s Talk Soup. And in February, Springer will play himself on Fox’s Between Brothers and Mad TV. There are big-screen gigs as well: He will pop up in the upcoming David Schwimmer films Kissing a Fool from Universal and Miramax’s Since You’ve Been Gone. And, of course, there’s the mail-order video Jerry Springer: Too Hot for TV!, a lustfully lurid clip reel of assorted unaired melees, which is currently the must-have cassette in Hollywood (okay, next to Tommy and Pamela Lee’s boudoir tape): Sean ”Puffy” Combs, Mark Wahlberg, and Andy Richter are a few of the celebs who have called to request a copy. And a sequel is due in February.

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