In 1998, Jerry Springer’s confrontational, chair-throwing TV talk show was a sensation. It aired on WAGA at 4pm, opposite Oprah. For a ratings period or two, it actually had a larger Atlanta audience than Oprah. Like it or not, it was an effective lead-in to WAGA’s 5pm news.
But Springer’s show was lowbrow and controversial. It triggered a gazillion phone calls every week, most of them griping about the content. Those at WAGA who had to actually speak to those angry callers couldn’t disagree. Truth was, the Springer show drove WAGA’s managers crazy. They wanted nothing more than to get rid of this embarrassment, but couldn’t. They’d created a monster.
This comes to mind as I stumbled across this piece WAGA produced for its 50th anniversary in 2008. It was based on a story Andi Larner and I produced about WAGA’s 40th anniversary ten years earlier. WAGA took the essence of the 1998 story, added some fireworks to the tail end of it, and reconstituted it as a 50th anniversary piece. They apparently played the piece at the 2008 Emmy Awards. (It’s worth noting that I’d left WAGA twelve months earlier, and am delighted they continued to recycle my work.)
I knew about the station’s uneasy relationship with the Springer show. Despite that knowledge, I opted to include a three-second chair-throwing clip of Springer during the 40th anniversary piece. It was a bit of ill-advised mischief on my part, yes. But I thought it was a fair snapshot of the TV industry’s then-current direction, a sharp contrast from its past. If the TV station runs Springer for sixty minutes every day, who could object to three seconds of it in my story?
(A year earlier, Andi Larner, photog Eddie Cortes and I produced a piece called “Jerry Springer Happy Hour” at a bar on Tybee Island. The bar now known as Benny’s played the Springer show for patrons imbibing in cut-rate drinks. It was quite the interactive experience. The story won an Emmy. I seem to recall my ad-libbed acceptance speech including a line that said “this story had no cultural or literary value whatsoever. So, thanks.”)
As the lovely Ms. Larner was tweaking the 40th anniversary piece in a post room, General Manager Gene McHugh walked past in the hallway.
Understandably interested in the story about his TV station, he asked if he could see the piece. Larner hit “play.” McHugh liked what he saw, up to the end. “Take that out,” he said curtly, referring to the Springer moment. “But it’s just a three-second shot,” I began to object. McHugh, a normally affable and easygoing guy, made it clear the order was non-negotiable.
The Springer moment disappeared from the 1998 version of the piece. Within a year or so, McHugh had jettisoned Springer’s show from the 4pm slot. It’s now on WATL late afternoons, safely tucked away from any newscast.
In other retro news, check out this Pecanne Log post, where Christa posts four pieces of promo video from Atlanta TV from the mid-70s to mid-80s.