In the 1980s networks here in the US began to stray away from the fictionalized dramas that had previously been flooding the living rooms across the nation since the 1950s, and began replacing them with the real drama of tabloid talk shows. Shows like Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, and The Geraldo Rivera Show allowed people across the country to get a voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of average people, as well as some of the more unusual characters within society.
As the television genre began to take off and more contenders entered onto the scene, there was pressure to become more shocking, and ultimately more exploitative of their guests. The second wave of these shows in the 1990s, which included The Jenny Jones Show, typically featured sensationalist titles like: “I’m Sleeping with My Sister’s Husband,” “Out of Control Teens Go to Boot Camp,” and others.
Forced to face off with shows like The Jerry Springer Show – which often encouraged guests to duke it out on stage, tear apart the set, and take off their clothing – The Jenny Jones Show wasn’t the fiercest of opponents. Jones tended to focus her episodes on topics like transsexual fashion shows, geek to chic transformations, and secret crushes.
Though by the standards of the time Jones was exploring fairly innocuous topics, when real people are taken on a television show seen by people across the country and there is some level of deception involved in getting them there, anything could happen.
Filmed on March 6, 1995, an episode of The Jenny Jones Show titled “Same Sex Secret Crushes” featured homosexuals coming clean to their possibly heterosexual crush. Two of these guests included Scott Amedure, who wanted to confess to his friend Jonathan Schmitz, who had also agreed to go on the show, that he had a crush on him.
The show, which never aired, began with Amedure and another friend on the panel discussing his crush on Schmitz with Jones pressing Amedure to go further into details about sexual fantasies he had had about his friend.
According to Amedure’s mother, Jones’ producers attempted to push Scott into doing things he wasn’t comfortable with like kissing Schmitz as he entered on stage or handing him a bouquet of roses. Amedure refused to go along with the requests of Jones and her producers, but agreed to go along with the show’s request to “make it look good.”
Schmitz, who had been waiting backstage to find out who his secret crush was, had no idea that Amedure and another mutual friend were on stage waiting for him to come out. Schmitz had been told that the crush could be male or female. Expecting to be reunited with an old girlfriend or someone from work, imagine Schmitz’s surprise when he walked on stage to find that it was his good friend Scott Amedure.
Though he was aware that Amedure was homosexual, Schmitz was clearly embarrassed by the revelation. Jones continued to exploit the situation by playing back a clip of Amedure discussing various sexual fantasies he had about Schmitz.
When all was said and done, Schmitz agreed to drive Amedure and their mutual friend Donna to the airport. Schmitz spent the rest of the following night drinking with several coworkers before returning home to find a note left from Amedure. The note read:
“If you really want to get it off, I’m the only one who has the right tool.”
Schmitz was infuriated by the suggestive note left by Amedure. He immediately went to the bank, withdrew money, and bought a shotgun. He then went to the home of Scott Amedure in order to confront him about the note. After questioning Amedure, Schmitz went to his car and returned to the home with the shotgun. He shot Amedure twice in the chest before dialing 911 and confessing to the shooting.
The shocking murder sent out shockwaves felt by everyone in the tabloid talk show circuit, but the most heat was on Jones for allegedly deceiving Schmitz by leading him to believe that his “crush” could have been a woman.
With the help of the so-called “Gay Panic Defense,” Schmitz’s attorney claimed that Schmitz was so distraught that the crush revealed on the show was not a woman, that it sent him to a spiral of binge drinking. Feeling further humiliated by the note left by Amedure, Schmitz snapped.
Schmitz was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25-50 years in prison, but the story didn’t end there. The Amedure family then took Jenny Jones to civil court, holding the show responsible for provoking the murder that ensued afterwards.
Secrets about the show’s shocking tactics to get guests to behave as outrageously as possible on-air began to spill out. Guests were encouraged to drink alcohol prior to stepping on stage, and their green room was regularly stocked with vodka and orange juice. They were also not above pushing at guests’ open wounds in order to spill a little more blood on stage and elicit the emotional responses they desired.
The Jenny Jones Show, wasn’t the only tabloid talk show using cutthroat tactics to get emotions flaring and fists swinging on stage, but she was certainly the host facing the most criticism. There was plenty of debate on whether or not Jones’ show should be held responsible for acts that occurred days after the show’s taping.
After two years of deliberations The Jenny Jones Show was ordered to pay the Amedure Family $25m in damages. The verdict sent a clear message to “an entire industry which takes advantage of individuals and uses the emotions of individuals for the entertainment of others,” said Amedure Family attorney Geoffrey Fieger.
Schmitz, who had been suffering from bipolar disorder as well as a thyroid disorder, was found to be particularly vulnerable to the exploitative nature of these programs. Fieger told CNN,
“What it (the verdict) says is that you can’t abuse people, you have to at least be forthright, tell the people what they’re going to be getting involved in and … make sure you don’t involve mentally ill people who could strike out.”
James Feeney, who represented the show, called the verdict “a blow to freedom.” “Anyone involved in the business of interviewing ordinary people… ought to be very concerned about the chilling effect this decision will have on them. These are issues that have much broader implications than just ‘The Jenny Jones Show.'”
“if a reporter from (CBS News’) ’60 Minutes’ confronts an executive with an incriminating document during an interview and that executive goes home and causes harm to himself or somebody else, ’60 Minutes’ is liable. That is the message of this verdict and I think everyone in the media and everyone who cares about free speech in this country should be very concerned.”
The suit would be followed by other cases, including a suit filed against the Maury Povich Show. Prior to the decision to focus primarily on paternity testing, the show often featured out of control teens. One episode featured a 14-year-old Texas girl, who was encouraged to act sexually provocative on the show and focus on her many adult lovers.
The girl’s family agreed to allow their teen to go on the program after the show offered to put the girl through counseling and send her into a bootcamp program. After the show a man approached the teen and told her that he was a limo driver for the show. The girl got into the limo and was raped by the man who approached her.
The case was later dismissed, after it was determined that the man had no affiliation with the show whatsoever and had been an imposter.
Dr. Phil has also faced his share of lawsuits, with the most bizarre stemming from an incident in 2007. Shirley Rae Dieu alleges that she was taken by the producers of the show to participate in a group therapy session. During this session the woman claims that she was held captive and “forced to be in the same room with a completely live naked man while he exposed his entire naked body, genitals and all.” This was alleged to be treatment for Dieu’s issues with men.
At this point we should all be asking ourselves the question, “When does entertainment cross the line?” How far is too far? While the people and their stories are real, these programs often take creative liberties with edits in conjunction with encouraging their guests to act as outrageously as possible in order to attract viewers. Their very livelihood rests upon making individuals appear foolish on national television. Should the blame rest solely on a guest’s hands for acting out of the norm for their 15 minutes of fame, or should these shows be forced to work within the same ethical guidelines journalists are expected to uphold?