Although I infrequently watch television these days, I loved it in high school. Every morning, waking up at 6 AM, I would watch the local Fox affiliate’s morning news program, which I regarded as far superior to the trashy Good Day L.A. Being an early riser and inveterate TV watcher gave you a leg up on events in those days. One evening around 2000, my middle school burnt down. I can recall being up at 5:30 AM or so, seeing Chadwick School up in flames on TV, and running into my parents’ bedroom to tell them. Other times, more darkly, I can recall waking up on September 11th to see the smoking Pentagon, and watching the second tower fall right before my carpool picked me up for school that Tuesday. Primed for the day rather than interrupted by the terrorist attacks, students at my LA high school were nervous all day as people speculated whether LA was important enough to merit destruction. Then there were sick days: I can recall, fortuitously or not, faking an illness on Tuesday, April 20, 1999, when the Columbine School Shootings happened, and watching them and the aftermath take place live on television. The combination of middle school mischief and a relatively early West Coast time zone made me privy to current events I might not otherwise have been.
Still, one show – or rather genre of shows – that I can recall peeking more into my consciousness during the 1990s were so-called “trash TV” shows, such as The Jerry Springer Show, Maury, and Montel. I ended up having an interesting conversation with friends recently at a barbecue at St John’s College in Oxford, and I want in this post to try to recreate some of the themes we discussed – why trash TV reached its peak in the 1990s (before being displaced by reality TV shows like Survivor, which premiered in 2000), what its historical antecedents may be, and what it all meant. A discussion of trash TV is also interesting insofar as it corresponds to a larger project or scheme of mine to one day write a history of the popular culture of the 1990s. This was something that almost anyone growing up in America with access during a television during those years was privy to, and I for one want to interrogate in more depth what was being streamed into our homes.
But for those less familiar with American culture in the 1990s, what precisely were these shows? Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, talk shows and interview programs like The Tonight Show, The Late Late Show, and, later, Phil Donahue prospered. While never terribly intellectual or muckraking (in that they rarely investigated, say, urban poverty issues of the day), these shows brought American households a huge (for the time) variety of musical acts, public personalities, and mass American culture. Sometime around the 1980s, however (why this period would be interesting if one investigated in more depth), tabloid talk shows like Oprah (which premiered in 1986) and Geraldo (1988). These shows tended to have a more confessional element, or at the least emotionally open interviews of the kind that earned Winfrey a reputation. But the temptation towards spectacle remained strong. Geraldo became infamous for one episode that seemed absurdly incendiary when they invited on white supremacists, anti-racist skinheads, black activists, and Jewish community leaders. The result was a massive brawl that broke Geraldo’s nose, but helped make his career.
The race for rock-bottom was on! Over the course of the early 1990s, more explicitly trashy shows like Jerry Springer, Maury, and Montel would emerge, all with different tacks. Springer’s show seemed to deliberately cater towards the fantastic, with shows on people who had attempted to marry animals, pedophilia, and adultery. The show became famous for its brawls, so much so that Springer released a film in 1998 titled Ringmaster. Povich’s show focused more on issues of urban (largely African-American but also many lower-class whites) infidelity, family breakdown, and betrayal and tended to be less violent, although it, too, abounded in absurd moments. One man, when he discovered he was “not the father” (paternity tests were a recurring theme on the show) of his former girlfriend’s baby, broke out into breakdance. Another episode I was listening to today while making some maps involved the confession of a man to his fiancée that he did not in fact work at a warehouse at nights, but rather as a male stripper for gay nightclubs. The fiancée left him. Still, these shows often bore an undercurrent of social conservatism or middle-class values at the same time that they paraded underclass values before American audiences. Jerry Springer always ended with “Final Thought,” a more reflective segment on how the people who had been destroyed on the show were, in some ways a reflection of the audience. They had exposed themselves to the travails of love (i.e. best friends sleeping with lovers), something that all of us, Springer suggested, had to do. Maury, meanwhile, often underlined to the guests the value of – once the shock of learning that you were in fact the father had worn off – settling down and becoming a good Dad.
So what made these shows relevant, interesting, and popular, at least to audiences in the 1990s? I would identify at least two things that were going on here. On one level, I would wonder about the connection between the emergence of these shows, with their fascination on lower-class urban culture, and the passage of welfare reform under Clinton. Welfare ceased to be an entitlement, recipients lost their claim to welfare checks if they did not work within two years of receiving benefits, and one could qualify for a maximum of five years of welfare benefits in the course of their lifetime. Monthly federal welfare benefits declined to about $150 a month by 2011, down from $230 (inflation-adjusted) in the late 1970s. Parental benefits were shifted from the more generous AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) system to TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families), which required even single parents to work a minimum of 30 hours a week to remain eligible for support. Debate continues as to the ultimate impact of Clinton’s welfare reform program, but it also took place at a time of de-industrialization and the shifting of jobs to Mexico after NAFTA (which was opposed by a majority of Americans) was passed in 1994. Incarceration rates continued to rise across the country, too, which, combined with the job losses at the bottom of the market, made it that much harder for African-American women to find eligible, marriageable black men. Education, of course, was still a mess in the American inner city. The point is that in spite of some gains for a small sub-section of professionals, the 1990s marked the continued decline of the American urban class, accelerated by welfare reform and other structural adjustments to the American economy.
I hence view shows like Jerry Springer and Maury as radiographs of this changing urban environment in 1990s America. Many of the shows were taped on site – Springer in Chicago, Maury and Montel in the New York area – and had an ample supply of dysfunctional, economically distressed couples to draw on. The bizarre stories and tragedies captured on these shows – tales of a poor white man who works at a McDonald’s drive-thru who has to confess to his wife that he has been cheating on her with drive-thru patrons – reflect on the one hand the abandonment of the American working class by globalizing élites in the 1990s, on to today. The participants on the show, caught by the pain of structural re-adjustment of the American economy, are never in the process of re-training or changing careers. Lacking a solid intellectual or technical education, they live in a world beyond professional time, perpetually in low-end service jobs, security positions, or the illegal/vice economy (drug dealing, strip clubs, prostitution). People are never moving on to anything better. They sit, frozen, in a perpetual world of low-end jobs and poverty.
These shows promoted a certain moral vision of the underclass. Take the topic of structural readjustment and jobs re-training, for example. I would not wish to argue that in the face of a shifting global economic structure, the proper response would have been for, say, the US government to subsidize manufacturing production to keep these low-skilled American at work. I recently just the excellent Dissolution by Charles Maier, which elegantly discusses how political élites in the DDR (East Germany) failed to make tough choices in the early 1970s that left them with few choices for long-term prosperity or dynamism by the 1980s. But there were tradeoffs for both sides in the Cold War. At some point in the 1970s, Western policymakers (most forcefully in the United States and Great Britain) decided that semi-permanent unemployment rates of ten percent or greater were an acceptable cost to the benefits of moving to a focus on high valued-added goods: chemical production, computers, and machine tools, as opposed to ship-building and steel.
However, a critical part of any such policy shift that so seeks to look into the future rather than hold on to the economic fundamentals of the past (as the socialist world did, relying on the industrial paradigm of 1920-1970 into oblivion) has to be the re-training and vocational re-education of those left behind economically. (This is of course an issue today, as tens of millions of Americans are unemployed but often lack the opportunities or financing options to learn, say, how to program, or to get access to venture capitalists.)
Thus, part of what I worry about, but find fascinating as a critic, with shows like Jerry Springer and Maury is the extent to which they paint misfortune and conversion into the middle-class as moral (not economic experiences). For the male guests on Maury who do discover that “they are the father,” manning up is presented as something that the participant simply has to do, morally; there’s little discussion of how the guy without a high school diploma is going to get a reasonable job that he can use to support his wife/girlfriend and their baby.
For example, in one episode I watched yesterday, a horrified woman who had conceived a child with her (gay) best friend discovered that the friend had decided that a) the baby wasn’t his and b) that if it was his, he and his male lover wanted full custody over the child. The narrative in this particular episode revolved more around feelings of homophobia and proper parenting models among the urban underclass, but nobody actually mentioned where these people worked, or whether they had the education or skills to create a reality in which the child could grow up. The key to becoming a good middle-class urban denizen in these shows is the act of personal resolve or moral conversion, not getting a job, re-training economically, and so forth. The leap into the middle class requires the intervention of a calm, well-dressed, well-coiffed white man (Maury), or, in the case of Montel, the intervention of the statistically tiny black middle class to tell these people how to live.
While I stand happy to be corrected, I wonder how unique this focus on moral conversion (as opposed to institutional reform) as the proper route towards middle-class prosperity is in a history of industrial or post-industrial literature. Charles Dickens, of course, painted for his audiences both the whimsy as well as the despair of the urban classes of industrial England. Moral change was part of the story for the success of his protagonists, but there was a strong focus in stories like Bleak House on the need for institutional reform if the lower classes were to succeed in the long run. Shows like Springer and Povich, meanwhile, gave scant attention to institutional factors like education reform (which was not a big topic on the public agenda in the United States in the 1990s) or differential sentencing (crack vs. cocaine) in the courts.
These shows, which alternated between voyeurism and moral improvement, also displayed a lack of ambiguity towards the situation of the poor that distinguished the most sympathetic writers on the topic in at least the British position. In Howard‘s End by E.M. Forster, for example, the Schlegel sisters become interested in the case of Leonard Bast, a poor clerk working in London. They mistakenly advise him to quit his decent job at an insurance company, which plunges him into poverty. Helen Schlegel, one of the main characters, learns that her sister’s husband, a major player in the decision to get Leonard to quit the job, once had an affair while on a trip to Cyprus with Leonard’s wife, a poor English woman, but then abandoned her to fate far away from home. Helen attempts to improve Leonard’s situation out of a desire to “only connect” with the poor and improve their lot, but brings dishonor to herself when she ends up having an affair with him. The situation becomes even more gruesome when Leonard arrives at the family’s estate and is murdered by one of the family members. Still, Henry Wilcox, the man who once had the affair with Leonard’s wife, and whose son killed Leonard, decides to take in the child of Leonard and Helen. The upper classes struggle to find a way to communicate and reach out in works like Howard’s End, and the possibility of genuine communion seems distant. It only happens after Leonard is destroyed professionally and literally beaten to death by a member of the Schlegel clan. But a writer like Forster remained at least aware of the need to understand the lower classes, in spite of the difficulty of connecting across the class divide. His characters often fail at bridging these divides, be they social, economic, racial, or imperial, but the sense of obligation persists.
Trash TV shows weren’t popular forever. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, a new wave of game shows (Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, American Idol, and others come to mind) and, of course, reality television (Survivor and Big Brother on the heels of 1990s exemplars like The Real World and Road Rules) stormed onto the market for eyeballs and displaced many of the 1990s trash TV shows. Why? Most concretely, I wonder about how and if the economics of producing television shows changed around this time. If shows like Maury and Jerry Springer required a certain scouting out of “talent” for the show, security (to break up fights), and some coordination (to make sure that the interviews or conversations of people on the show were suitable for television consumption), the new wave of game shows and reality TV shows had several advantages. Contestants, who came from more classes of society than the underclass now, had a real incentive to appear on the show, whether for money (Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?) or for fame that was not necessarily linked to bad behavior (as on The Real World, although plenty of personalities gained their fame through racism, sexual assault, and alcoholism on that show). The costs of installing cameras in a house, if not of sending an entire crew to Borneo for eight weeks to tape Survivor, may have been less than taping, day after day, segments of trash TV talk shows in typically expensive metropolitan studio locations. The cost of generating content might have simply gone down in ways that made the economics behind Springer and Montel’s shows less compelling.
However, more speculatively, I alternatively worry and wonder whether the shift in the television shows of the last ten years represents part of a flight into illusion that bodes ill for American culture at large. On the one hand, we might observe that while some of the indicators associated with the “Great Disruption” finally tailed off towards the end of the 1990s, many troubling developments continued in the USA during the last ten years. Consumer spending on goods (credit card debt), education (student loan), and housing (subprime mortgages) grew in ways that were not only out of proportion to household budgets but also did not result in increased productivity. Credit and easy lending produced an empire of Furbies produced in China, tract houses in the desert and worthless JD degrees from third-rate schools, but few of these things actually improved the quality of life or economic productivity of Americans. The sense of solidarity in American life decreased, as citizens were treated after 9/11 less as members of a common mission than as compliant atomized consumers (remember Bush’s mantra to “go shopping” after 9/11). Rates of obesity grew, and while many Americans served their country valiantly through military or community service, the dominant attitude on college campuses throughout the 2000s was one less of shared sacrifice and frugality than of “screw you, I got mine,” a race to the Wall Street troughs, and increased alienation from the lower classes.
Did the shift in television programming reflect this? Shows like Springer and Maury may have been exploitative in method and crude in content, but no one ever labored under the fantasy that if they wanted a piece of the American dream, they could simply have it (as opposed to working for it, or being born into a situation where it was ripe for the taking). The majority of the guests on these shows lived crude lives of adultery, betrayal, and poverty, and improvement meant (if not getting a job) a shift in values, but no one labored under the illusion that they were entitled to a three-bedroom house, national fame, or a million dollars. The guests on Maury simply wanted out of their abusive relationships, to make a confession to people that (they thought) they loved, and to find some way out of the sticky situations that structural unemployment and bad education had left them in. They persisted in magical thinking (irresponsible young men who thought they could have has much sex as they wanted without consequence, or the fellow who married a horse), but their irresponsibility did not spread risk around the society in the same way that the poor financial practices of the last ten years – which have not seen a full reckoning – did.
Chris Hedges, a distinguished journalist and one of my most influential teachers from Princeton, once said that “a dream is something you strive towards; an illusion is something you live in.” Many of the Americans presented on the trash TV shows were, of course, deluded and lived bizarre and irresponsible lifestyles. But at the same time there was, somehow, a healthy acceptance that this was the way people behaved, and that no one had a right to find global fame, fortune, or happiness. People struggled with dysfunction and irresponsibility, and the hosts of these shows reminded their middle-class audiences at the end of it all that these people could serve as an example about the perils of love to us.
The popular shows of the 2000s presented a different, more materialistic and societally irresponsible vision of American aspiration. Most obviously, shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Promoted material success as within the reach of ordinary Americans, if only you got lucky. By banding together (poll the audience) or reaching out to your loved ones (phone a friend), you could have instant wealth without really working. Unlike shows like Wheel of Fortune (where luck determined wealth) or Jeopardy (where knowledge of trivia answered in non-multiple choice format could earn you incremental wealth, say, $20,000 a show), Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? dumbed things down by making a multiple-choice knowledge of trivia the key to success, and upping the prize money. The behavior of contestants on shows like Real World – Road Rules Challenge or The X-Factor may not have matched the crudeness of those on the trash TV shows, but unlike the process of reckoning that (in theory) was to take place on shows like Maury via either conversation or violent showdowns, these new reality TV shows glorified and rewarded backstabbing and undermining other contestants. You got on to shows like Springer because of bad behavior, which was supposed to be expunged in a public spectacle; shows like the new reality ones encouraged this bad behavior if you wanted to win and succeed.
More middle-brow shows like House Hunters, on which typically a couple or a young family would visit three houses or apartments in a city, debate the pros and cons of each, and finally make a decision, while less outrageous, may have also been a part of the problem. House Hunters made clear the family’s or couple’s financial constraints at the beginning of the episode (looking for a house between $200,000 and $225,000, say), but it never questioned whether mass home ownership was itself a good idea, especially in some of the Middle American locales that people invested significant amounts of money into. The financial side of the program was limited to the budget constraints as opposed to different mortgage options, and the real appeal of the show (which I frequently watch with my mother when I’m home) is for viewers to join the tour and judge other people for their choices in real estate – fun, but not necessarily the best set of values to stoke.
Fame, finally, was another area of change. While participants on shows like Montel became public and legible for humiliation in the same way that failures on American Idol’s first-round auditions do, no one ever went on these shows to become famous or a celebrity. I suspect that some payment was involved, and there were occasionally questions about the extent to which the more outrageous moments of the trash TV shows were staged. But by and large people appeared on these shows, it seems to me, to have a final showdown, to leverage the forces of television along with science (paternity tests) and the legal force that TANF imposed on delinquent fathers (more stringent demands for child support) to give themselves and their children a slightly more dignified atmosphere in which to live. Sure, there was the post-facto chance of viral fame, as with one of the “you are not the father” personalities, as well as the chance for utter emotional breakdown, but no one ever became a national or regional celebrity in the way that personalities from The Apprentice or American Idol could. The message of shows like Britain’s Got Talent, where Susan Boyle became a global musical sensation, or the American Idol series, were also disturbing: you, too, if only you have access to the television or the music producers, can escape the doldrums of everyday life and become a celebrity.
I do not wish to idealize the trash TV shows, all the more so as I associate them with my early adolescence, of the occasional day spent at home, sick or not from school, half spent in bed, the other half spent watching daytime TV and playing video games to “heal.” The people they presented were crude, obnoxious, and tiresome, and their faux concern for these people’s moral improvement masked a voyeuristic attitude far removed from Forster’s maxim of “only connect.”
Still, insofar as they mark a step backwards in time from what I perceive as the decline into celebrity culture and overconsumption as dominant themes in mainstream American television today, I associate them more, probably too much so, with values closer to my own, as well as those of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Participants on these shows were never responsible and they were stuck in dead-end jobs, but there was more of a sense of trying to work one’s way out of a tough spot rather than hoping that the right reality TV producer could move you from the domain of crackerdom or white trash to giving valedictory speeches as a newly-minted celebrity. The situation with black fathers and families only got worse during the 1990s, but unlike many of the current shows, which either focus on the white underclass (Jersey Shore) or a strictly criminal black underworld (The Wire), shows like Montel intimated that there was, potentially, even ineluctably, something other than the world of impregnating high school girls and raising hell that black males might strive towards.
I watch much less TV now then I did as the young man who got up at 6 AM to watch his school burn down on TV, or see moments of American history go by before the carpool came by. But perhaps that’s for the better. The memories of those days, the tragedies of people on these shows, and the moral attitude that we were instructed to take towards these people are history, frozen in the cultural moment of the mid-1990s, in which I came of age, and which I hope to uncover further, but is now, for better or for worse, history.