Worst blow to tabloid TV may be falling ratings

'JENNY JONES' VERDICT

The genre of television known as "trash TV" took it on the chin last week, the latest blow for a programming archetype already stumbling over growing public disaffection and falling ratings.

While many media analysts say the $25 million verdict against "The Jenny Jones Show" is not likely to stand up on appeal, the landmark negligence case nonetheless may force producers of such programs to tone down topics.

Those who criticize the fistfights, psychological ambushes, and "anything goes" culture of these talk shows are saying, "It's about time." Others see the verdict as a further indication that the controversial programs are starting to lose their hold on the public imagination.

"The more shows like "Jenny Jones" and "Jerry Springer" push the envelope, the more they marginalize themselves," says cultural critic Neal Gabler, author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

"It's no longer sufficient to have a program on rape. You have to have the rapist and his victim confront one another," says Mr. Gabler. "Now it's no longer sufficient to have them just yell at each other, they have to have some kind of fight.... Soon you'll get to the point where the audience begins to understand that the immorality of the show is so great that it's no longer entertaining."

Free-speech advocates, meanwhile, warn that the multimillion-dollar verdict will have a chilling effect - not only on the talk shows, but also on other segments of the media. Such verdicts, they say, could ultimately make news organizations responsible for a story's tragic results.

A jury in Pontiac, Mich., ordered producers for "The Jenny Jones Show" to pay $25 million to the family of a gay guest who was shot to death after acknowledging he was attracted to another man on the show. Jonathan Schmitz, a guest on the show in 1995, is serving a 25- to 50-year sentence for shooting Scott Amedure, who appeared with him during a "secret admirer" segment. Amedure's family brought a wrongful-death suit against the show's producers, and the Michigan jury agreed "The Jenny Jones Show" was liable for Amedure's death.

Others who have sued "trash TV" shows have won in court - although none as spectacularly as the "Jenny Jones" case. Several years ago, a California woman won a $614,000 settlement from producers of "The Montel Williams Show," claiming she had been lured onto the show under false pretenses.

While the size of the "Jenny Jones" award is unusual, "the likelihood of this standing up on appeal is small," says Eric Mink, television critic for the Daily News in New York. Leading First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams termed the decision "preposterous," predicting it would be overturned.

Perhaps more significant, the fine represents a new strategy among lawyers suing media organizations. Increasingly, media are being sued not for libel, but for crimes more easily proved, such as trespassing or, in the Jones case, civil negligence.

"There's an emerging legal subculture that seems to be devoted to finding ways to capitalize on antimedia sentiment in the courtroom without having to hurdle the requirements for libel laws," says Mr. Mink.

Some of that sentiment took hold in 1996, when former Education Secretary William Bennett spearheaded a campaign with members of Congress to stem "moral decay" in the media, typified by some daytime talk shows.

In the short term, Mink says the Jones verdict may result in changes on the release forms guests must sign. Programs like "The Jenny Jones Show" may even go so far as to require guests to release the show from legal liability for their future actions.

While some shows may do more to shield themselves legally, few have been able to protect their programs from a continuing slide in ratings. That trend has many critics observing that, even without the Jones verdict, "trash TV" is in serious trouble.

Traditionally, shows like those hosted by Jerry Springer earn as much as $50 million to $60 million a year, offering advertisers a desirable female demographic. While Mr. Springer's ratings remain steady, pulling in an average 6.7 million households in April, Jenny Jones, Ricki Lake, Rosie O'Donnell, and Montel Williams all suffered double-digit declines in their ratings during the same period. New shows such as "Roseanne" and "Donny & Marie" also saw a drop in viewers.

Cultural critics such as Mr. Gabler aren't surprised. A case in point, they say, is the rise and fall of Morton Downey Jr. in the late 1980s. The abrasive Mr. Downey, who became known for ordering guests off the set when their views angered him, egged his interviewees into physical confrontations. His raucous antics and archconservatism earned him nationwide fame and a cult following among young people - and left an indelible mark on television history. Yet the show itself was short-lived: Its syndication run ended after 14 months.

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