Reviews > Culture

Springer in a robe

"Springer in a robe" Continued...

Issue: "Life of a warrior," June 12, 1999

"That's a lie."

"What, you want to sue me for lying now, too? You're the liar."

"You're a liar."

Muffin, however, kept a dignified silence.

Media critic David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun has correctly diagnosed the trouble with these shows: They have the same basic appeal as the trashy talk shows, even though they attempt to do it in a more formal setting.

"The people standing before the bench are pretty pathetic-pathetic enough that we can feel superior to them, just as we do the combatants on shows such as Jerry Springer."

Ironically, just as the courtroom shows seem to be increasing the sleaze factor (due to the growing competition), Jerry Springer is cleaning up his act-supposedly. Last month, Studios USA, which produces the Springer show, pulled several segments (including "Guess What, I'm Bisexual") for content reasons and substituted tamer episodes from the 1995-96 season.

The studio issued a statement, declaring, "We will produce and distribute a program that we feel is responsible-no violence, physical confrontation or profanity. That program will either be an original or a qualifying re-edited repeat. We will inform stations that we are not providing any Jerry Springer program if these standards cannot be met."

The reason the statement is so strong is that last year Jerry Springer made a similar commitment-and then failed to live up to it. By the time national attention drifted away from television violence, Springer guests were back to punches, perversion, and profanity.

The studio's statement is really a success story. Behind it is a crusade by a Roman Catholic priest, Michael Pfleger, of Chicago. He's been battling the Springer show for a couple of years now, and he's the reason Jerry Springer is scheduled to appear before the Chicago City Council on June 4. Mr. Pfleger prodded the council to ask why Jerry Springer's bouncers, all off-duty Chicago police officers, fail to arrest the combatants, when they are required to so do by law. And he led a group of Chicago citizens to Los Angeles to protest at the studio's front gates.

The persevering priest is wary, however, of the studio's true commitment. Will it really forgo revenues if Jerry Springer's ratings plummet?

In the meantime, is there any daytime television worth watching? Let's face it, soap opera ratings go up significantly during the summer-as do the numbers for game shows and talk shows. Which suggests kids are watching, whether the programs are quality or not. And the networks seem to know this. Watch for (better yet, don't watch for) NBC's summertime replacement soap, Passions, which will feature a Texas teenager in a sultry summer role.

Honestly, there are few oases in the vast daytime wasteland-but there's a cool breeze from Canada, a program gaining ground with younger viewers.

Hammy the Hamster, star of Once Upon a Hamster, is an institution among our neighbors to the north. His every move is reported-including the incident last summer when he escaped his cage while being pet-sat by a friend of the show's producer. He was found within a few hours, having enjoyed a romp through his caretaker's 17th-century farmhouse. Canada breathed a sigh of relief.

Once Upon a Hamster is a live-action show starring Hammy, his friends Martha (a mouse), Turtle, Hairbrush Henry (a hedgehog), Frog, and GP (a guinea pig who talks like W.C. Fields). They can be seen in the United States on the Trio cable channel (a joint venture that brings Canadian Broadcast Corporation programs to the United States) and in video stores.

The appeal of the program isn't complicated: The animals are cute; the adventures are lively without being scary; and the episodes attempt to impart light moral messages. But it goes beyond that-Hammy has developed a devoted following. A CD of Songs from the Riverbank (that's where Hammy and his friends live) will be released this month, and the Hammy website is one of Canada's most-accessed.

And, as mentioned above, Hammy's every move is watched. There was concern, for example, when one of Hammy's stunt doubles suffered heart trouble. It wasn't the stress, the Toronto Sun reported-it was the peanut butter. The show's producers, it turns out, use peanut butter spread strategically on the set to make sure Hammy goes where he's supposed to. Duff, the stunt double, who was rushed to a vet when he appeared sick during a shoot, was put on heart medication, and the whole cast was switched to Kraft Light peanut butter.

There have been other cast difficulties: Charlotte, the guinea pig who plays GP, spent one season biting crew members at every opportunity. She's calmed down now, having been paired with a rabbit companion. Their problems, however, have not been taken to Judge Wapner's Animal Court, nor do they anticipate an appearance on the Jerry Springer Show.

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