Vice documentary recalls when Chicago plumbed the depths of trash TV

Robert Feder

Chicagoans are justifiably proud of their role in propelling Oprah Winfrey to national stardom and serving as hometown boosters of her phenomenally popular and socially conscious talk show for more than 25 years.

But many of us would prefer to forget a more shameful side of Chicago’s recent past as the daytime talk show capital of America. For the better part of a decade the city also was an incubator for the worst excesses of trash TV — from mindlessness to mayhem — culminating in an off-screen murder of one guest by another.

“Trash TV: Dirty and Deadly Talk,” a one-hour documentary debuting tonight at 9 p.m. on the Vice cable network, takes a critical look back at an ugly era in pop culture and media. (Here is the link.) It’s the premiere episode of “Dark Side of the 90s,” a 10-part series billed as “a deep dive into the decade’s untold history, revealing secrets and perspectives.”

Dark Side of the 90's

In the heyday of the genre, dozens of Oprah wannabes competed for viewers — with the vast majority of them emanating from production studios in Chicago. As the stakes grew higher and the competition fiercer, tabloid talk hosts such as Jenny Jones and Geraldo Rivera veered into more outlandish and sensational topics.

None was more notorious than “The Jerry Springer Show,” which originated for most of its 27-year run from NBC Tower in Chicago. TV Guide once listed it at the top of “the worst TV shows of all time” — a distinction the show’s producers took as a compliment.

Richard Dominick, the shameless executive producer who masterminded Springer’s makeover from Cincinnati anchorman and Phil Donahue clone to ringmaster of a daily freak show and confrontational fight fest, is the focus of the documentary.

With disarming candor, Dominick explains how he would not be deterred from ratcheting up outrageousness and physical altercations even after a guest on “Jenny Jones” killed another guest (after a taping in which the victim revealed his same-sex crush on the unsuspecting object of his attraction).

“You had everybody running like chickens without a head,” Dominick says of his competitors. “When the Jenny Jones murder happened, it rocked television; honestly it did not rock us at all.”

In fact, as the on-camera chaos escalated, Springer’s ratings soared. At its peak “The Jerry Springer Show” was the most popular talk show in daytime — although by that time it featured more fighting than talking.

As a journalist who covered the TV business and Springer’s antics throughout his run in Chicago, I was interviewed for the documentary in February. Following strict COVID-19 protocols, my comments were taped at a rented Airbnb house in Highland Park, while the producer I talked to was in California and the director was in Canada. I was not paid for my participation.

Among front-page stories I revisit in the program was the time Chicago Alderman Ed Burke hauled Springer before a Chicago City Council committee to grill the host on whether the fights on his show were real or staged.

“If it’s a crime to slap your wife at Sox Park or Soldier Field, then it’s a crime to slap your wife on the stage at the Springer show,” Burke said at the time.

Springer made a mockery of the hearing, treating it as the publicity stunt that it was.

Geraldo Rivera (1988)

Michael Pfleger, the activist priest, makes a cameo appearance for leading picketing outside NBC Tower in an effort to get Springer thrown off the air. “Very righteous man,” Dominick sneers.

Chicago viewers also may appreciate a look back at Rivera’s seminal role in the rise of trash TV, starting with his carnival barker hosting of “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults” in 1986 and leading to the chair-throwing, nose-breaking melee on “Geraldo” in New York two years later.

Also interviewed for the documentary were former talk show host Montel Williams and two former staffers on Springer’s show — Laura Grindstaff, now a University of California Davis sociology professor and author, and Katie Rife, now a senior writer for The AV Club.

Wednesday’s comment of the day: Ed Gilliland: Sean Compton stated WGN is “committed to local news and entertainment.” Sean, explain the late night train wreck with the two out-of-towners. Comparing Rollye Jaymes to Chicago Eddie Schwartz is akin to saying Trump and President Carter are like minded. Jim Bohannon is better suited for Newsmax — not local Chicago radio. I now listen to WBEZ late night.

"The Jerry Springer Show"