Trailer trash tv Kyle style
Jeremy Kyle's brand of 'conflict resolution' divided critics and viewers in Britain, so how will it fare in the country that created the talk show? Paul Whitington takes to the couch
Published 20/08/2011 | 05:00
If you've ever flicked on your TV at around 10am, you might have caught sight of Jeremy Kyle. Since 2005, the former insurance salesman and local radio DJ has hosted a morning chat show that owes more than a passing debt to the work of Jerry Springer.
I say chat, but perhaps shout is the more appropriate description, because 'The Jeremy Kyle Show' is all about conflict.
Each weekday morning from 9.25am on ITV, variously dysfunctional working-class guests are paraded before the cameras to discuss their infirmities and accuse others of domestic crimes.
Alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence and paternal neglect are the show's staples: a lie detector is used to verify accusations of infidelity, and a DNA test settles denials of paternity.
It sounds vaguely worthy but is anything but. No Jeremy Kyle show is complete without a semi-fistfight, and although the series purports to be all about confronting personal issues, the baying studio audience and the patronising glibness of Kyle's observations would make you wonder whether anyone has ever benefitted from a session on his couch.
Unlike Jerry Springer, who expresses no more than an air of distracted amusement when confronted with the dirty linen of the underclass, Kyle is not afraid to pass judgement. Dressed in a dark suit and open-necked shirt, the blandly handsome host lectures, admonishes, shouts at and humiliates his erring guests, particularly the men, who almost always lack the wherewithal to contradict him.
It's almost as though a minor Tory MP had hijacked an episode of 'The Jerry Springer Show', and English critics have laid into Kyle with gusto. "Everything about 'The Jeremy Kyle Show' is completely and utterly horrid," wrote Charlie Brooker a few years back, "starting with Jeremy Kyle himself".
And yet the formula seems to work. Last year the show celebrated its 1,000th episode, and last week it was announced that Kyle will be taking his controversial show to the US.
He's just signed a five-year deal with the Fox network to host an American version of what he quaintly calls his "conflict resolution" programme, weekdays at 4pm.
His first show will air on September 19, and will hope to benefit from the fact that 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' will have finished for good just days before.
If Kyle succeeds it will be richly ironic, because his US venture is a classic case of trying to sell sand to the Arabs. The tabloid talk recipe he's flogging was invented in America as long ago as the early 1970s, and Kyle is following in the footsteps of some rather distinguished operators.
If Winfrey is the fairy godmother of the tabloid talk show, she herself has acknowledged a debt to the genre's founding father, Phil Donahue. When he first launched 'The Phil Donahue Show' on a local Ohio TV network in 1967, it was primarily a news show. But Donahue quickly became more interested in confessional-style interviews that addressed such taboo issues as atheism, marital strife, addiction and homosexuality.
His show went national in 1970, ran for a further 26 years and inspired everyone from Sally Jessy Raphael to Oprah.
If Donahue invented the tabloid talk format, Winfrey greatly expanded it. When she launched her own afternoon talk show in 1986, it seemed unlikely that the 32-year-old former news anchor would last long in a TV format dominated by middle-aged white males. But Winfrey, as we now know, was special.
Not only did she have an unerring populist intuition, but as an interviewer she had a uniquely empathetic style, and used confessions about her own life and horrific childhood to put subjects at ease. She also tackled issues no one else would touch, broadcasting one 1980s show live from a West Virginia town that had been so gripped by Aids paranoia that the mayor had drained the swimming pool because an HIV- positive man had swum in it.
Populist she might have been, but Winfrey had standards. When a woman in her audience stood up to announce that she was tired of gays flaunting their promiscuity, Winfrey sighed and said, "You know what I'm tired of -- heterosexual males raping and sodomising young girls".
Winfrey was definitely at the class end of tabloid TV, but her unprecedented ratings inspired some fairly tacky imitators. 'The Jenny Jones Show', which arrived in 1991, resorted to some pretty cheap tactics to grab some daytime ratings.
The paternity test was introduced, unruly teenagers were sent to bootcamp and former bullies were confronted by their victims.
But in 1995, a segment called 'Same Sex Secret Crushes' led to tragedy when a gay man who admitted to having a crush on his best friend was later murdered by the object of his affections.
In 1988, Geraldo Rivera invited an explosive panels of guests on to his lurid daytime show 'Geraldo', and must have known what was going to happen. A debate between neo-Nazis, anti-Nazi skinheads, black and Jewish activists turned into a live brawl in which chairs and tables were thrown and Geraldo himself had his lights punched out. The show's ratings went through the roof.
When Jerry Springer arrived in the early 1990s, the bar was nudged ever lower. More bear pit than talk show, the programme featured bouncers, a baying mob of a studio audience and a cheesy host who really didn't seem to care what happened.
No subject was too seedy for 'The Jerry Springer Show': pornography, weird fetishes, incest, racism and zoophilia (that's having sex with animals, folks) were all grist to Springer's mill, and the series regularly delivered new lows in TV broadcasting.
The show was repeatedly accused of fabricating outlandish stories and of choreographing its in-studio fights.
Jeremy Kyle has watched and learned. It's been suggested in the British media that subjects on 'The Jeremy Kyle Show' have been deliberately wound up by researchers prior to going on-air, and kept up late in order to make them more irascible.
Kyle talks of conflict resolution, but conflict pure and simple seems to be his show's primary aim.
In 2007, a man called David Staniforth was convicted of assault after headbutting a love rival on Kyle's show. Presiding judge Alan Berg delivered a withering verdict on Kyle's enterprise: "I have recently had the misfortune," he said, "of watching 'The Jeremy Kyle Show'. It seems to me that the purpose of this show is to effect a morbid and depressing display of dysfunctional people whose lives are in turmoil."
Sounds like a winning tabloid TV formula, but whether or not it'll work in the States we'll have to wait and see.
'The Jeremy Kyle Show' airs Monday to Friday at 9.25pm on UTV