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Despite contradictions, Maury's a success story

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McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - Damn that Paco! First he cybercheated on his wife, Lyric, with more than a thousand women! And she forgave him! But then _ shockingly! _ Lyric caught him sleeping with somebody else! Now he says he's sorry!

Highlights

By Glenn Garvin
McClatchy Newspapers (www.mctdirect.com)
3/18/2009 (1 decade ago)

Published in TV

"But do we forgive him?" Maury Povich shouts, clutching his microphone like a thunderbolt in the fist of Zeus.

Nooooooooooo! shouts back the crowd gathered around the pool at the Westin Diplomat in Hollywood, not just the paid ringers in camera range but even the growing crowd of hotel guests outside the ropes, entranced by their chance encounter with this video judgment day for horndogs and harlots. They shriek their contempt for Paco. Also for Lamar and Isis, who downsized Ashley out of their three-way; Michelle, who cheated on Jamerich on their wedding day; and Jason, who faithlessly abandoned his wife for a video game!

"It drove her into the arms of another man!" barks Povich. "And eventually onto our show in need of a DNA test!"

There are mysteries here much more profound than Lyric's naivete or even which video game Jason was playing. Like: How is it that this old guy who was on TV when it was mostly still black and white can attract millions of viewers the age of his grandchildren each day? Or how a reporter who once covered Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream!" speech and the Kennedy assassination wound up railing about baby-mama drama?

It is, concedes the 70-year-old Povich, a bundle of irresolvable contradictions that he long ago gave up any attempt to even comprehend.

"None of these things have anything to do with one another," he said, taking a break from the taping. (The episodes of his show "Maury" will air Thursday and Friday; check local syndicated listings.) "They're as contradictory as my personality. I'm really the sum of my contradictions.

"I've got lots of reasonably distinguished years in TV journalism, but I host a show about uncontrollable kids and DNA tests for cheaters. I helped invent TV tabloid news, but I produced a documentary about 9-11 ("Twin Towers") that won an Oscar. I'm a strong Obama supporter who's a dear friend of George Bush's.

"I'm a ton of contradictions, but I kind of like it. It gives me a depth I'm satisfied with. I mean, look at me. I have no business being married to a beautiful, important journalist like Connie Chung. But there she is."

In point of fact, Povich has always been a good-looking guy, handsome enough to have anchored local news shows in the biggest TV markets _ Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C. _ as well as three national shows. The years haven't laid waste to his face, just lent it gravity.

But there's no getting around the fact that he was born before the invention of network television, that he's twice the age of the viewers that advertisers want to attract, that he's a hopeless anachronism in a kiddie industry ... except that he has gotten around it. The median age of Povich's viewers (41) is the second-youngest in all of syndicated daytime programming, just behind Tyra Banks' audience (38) and way ahead of Oprah Winfrey's (56). In the key audience demographic for daytime TV, women aged 18 to 34, he's second only to Oprah.

This is as puzzling to Povich as it is to you. "I'm one of those guys who always felt you didn't get a job in television after you turned 50," he admits. "But all my success has come after 50. The older I get, the younger the audience gets.

"I don't know why. I have none of the life experiences of my viewers. A lot of them are two generations removed from me. They could be my grandchildren. And their ethnicity cuts across all societal structures. I've got huge percentages of African Americans, of Asian Americans, of everything. They all seem to think I know what's going on in their lives. I don't know why that is, because I don't have any life experience at that, either. I grew up in a white neighborhood in Washington, D.C. I never went to school with any minorities until college."

Whatever the reason, audiences flock to "Maury," a kind of "Jerry Springer Lite" without the fisticuffs. Instead of letting his sexually flamboyant and promiscuous guests beat the truth out of one another, Povich uses lie detectors and DNA tests to wring confessions from them. The show's most immortally depraved moment came a couple of years ago in a confrontation between a woman with newborn twins and a man who denied ever having had sex with her.

"We did a paternity test," Povich recalls. 'I opened the envelope with the results _ I never know what's in there, because I like to get the news along with the guests and the audience _ and it turned out he was the father of one twin, but not the other. The father shouted, 'That's impossible!' and the mother just ran off stage without saying a word. I thought I had misread the results _ I didn't think it was possible, either. I had to get a little biology lesson backstage.

"But the best thing was the audience _ they were absolutely stunned. And if you watch the show, you'll see that when we're testing paternity of twins, they never applaud or boo when I read the result on the first twin. They always wait. They want to see it happen again, though of course it never has."

Povich's face positively glows as he's recounting this tale of Promethean sexual appetite. But don't get the idea that he's beyond embarrassment.

"I've done a couple of shows that I never aired because I was so disgusted with them," he muses. "They had to do with racism _ some white Aryan stuff that kind of mirrored 'Geraldo,' although there were no broken noses. I realized then that when you did shows about religion or racism, there was so much screaming and vituperation, I couldn't see the value of it. You won't see very much about religion on 'Maury.' And we practically never even mention race unless it's in connection with who the father of a baby is."

If this seems to you a far cry _ some would say tumble _ from Povich's career as a reporter, well, he doesn't agree. Povich thinks he was headed in this direction from the moment in 1963 when he got his first job as a radio reporter at Washington's WWDC, the station that would later launch Howard Stern on the road to infamy. He quickly made the leap into television and soon was hosting "Panorama," a midday talk program on the capital's biggest independent station.

"'Panorama' had a huge impact on television news there," he says. "This was long before cable, and there was no news on TV during the day. So we were very influential _ we had a lot of eyeballs in the White House and on Capitol Hill watching our show. And right from the start, it was a mix. We did a lot of movie stuff, a lot of stuff about culture. But during the Watergate hearings, the senators would stop by during their lunch break to talk about the morning's developments. That was unheard of then."

Povich was eventually hired away, crisscrossing the country to ever bigger television markets, and in each one he somehow wound up doing a talk show along with his news-anchoring duties. "And I had this revelation," he says. "I was having more fun doing an hour or two on one subject than doing a 10-second intro to a 30-second story. I got frustrated with the lack of depth and time in television news."

His last hurrah as a newsman was helping Rupert Murdoch launch "A Current Affair," a syndicated daily blend of the lurid and the lascivious, in 1986. "No question that it gave birth to everything we consider tabloid TV," Povich says. "All the things you see on 'Entertainment Tonight' and 'Access Hollywood' and cable news and, these days, even broadcast news _ the entertainment component, the celebrity gossip, the sensational quality of the crime news _ it all came out of 'A Current Affair.'

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"Lust, love, deceit, revenge, all the Shakespearean themes, they were all caught up in 'A Current Affair.' And they're all caught up in the show I do now. To a great extent, those are also the things the show I do now is about. Paternity is about responsibility, about lust, about manning up, about proving whether someone is a father or not. And it all takes place in 15 minutes and you get a result _ a result it takes a soap opera six months to produce."

And like both Shakespeare and soap operas, Povich expects his show to be around a long time.

"To me, the show has always been a reality form of soap opera," he says proudly. "Interest in that form is not decreasing; it's increasing. What are all these new shows like 'The Real Housewives of Orange County' except an attempt to get this same stuff into prime time? They're soap operas without actors, just like us."

Oh, and one other thing: "The money is great," confides Povich. "Don't make any mistake. The money is always important."

___

© 2009, The Miami Herald.



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