Revealing paternity with Maury Povich and friends
STAMFORD, Conn.—Behind a backstage door, Maury Povich leafs through papers and listens to his producers brief him on that day's paternity mysteries. He checks the pronunciation of a name or two, tries to get straight which man is claiming a childhood testicular injury. Then he's ready.
"Let's play the game," the veteran TV personality says as he rises and heads toward the door.
A couple of turns down a hallway later, he steps onto a stage filled with women dancing to "Sexy and I Know It" over the loudspeaker. A roar of recognition greets him. Maury's people.
In the post-Oprah Winfrey daytime world, these are good days to be Maury Povich, who shares with Jerry Springer and Steve Wilkos a studio converted from a theater 45 miles northeast of New York. His show has its best ratings in five years. "Maury" is the top talk show among young viewers.
Of course, talk show is a general term here. What Povich does is more specific. A backstage whiteboard reveals that most upcoming shows are about establishing paternity through DNA tests or smoking out cheating spouses with the help of a lie detector. Ads soliciting future participants also detail the subject matter: "Do you believe the man you're in love with is cheating on you? If so, call Maury" and "Do you believe your boyfriend or husband is having sex with one of your family members? If so, call Maury."
"Maury" clearly gets some interesting phone calls. Not to judge harshly, but if you're sitting onstage in front of a hooting, hollering audience waiting for Povich to pull a piece of paper from a manila envelope and tell you who the father of your child is, your life has probably taken a couple of wrong turns.
To Povich's good fortune, there's an inexhaustible supply of people who don't mind telling cringe-worthy stories about themselves.
"Maury" is a milder version of what Springer does -- no flashing or free-for-alls -- but is no different from the type of program that 15 years ago drew end-of-civilization media attention.
Now they essentially exist in a vacuum. Nobody notices except regular fans.
"I haven't heard from (corporate bosses) NBC in a long time about the content on my show," Povich said. The show makes money, and there's a more liberal view of what is acceptable on television today. "In terms of what's on cable, we're kind of tame," he said.
What was once shocking now seems routine, said Walter Podrazik, curator for the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago. Turn down the sound and you'd be hard-pressed to know whether you're watching a rerun of Povich or Springer from a dozen years ago, he said.
It was around that time that Povich did his first paternity show with DNA testing. Now they're a staple, four stories each hour. It's a parlor game: A woman wakes up naked in bed next to her husband, memory foggy from a wild party the night before. The man's best friend, also naked, wakes up on a futon at the foot of the bed. Who's the daddy?
"There was an argument back then that if you beat people over the head with the same thing, they'd get tired of it," Povich said. "Well, guess what? The opposite is true. They want it more. They want DNA more. They want lie detectors more. They want crazy teenagers so that they can realize they're not as bad as some of those other people out there. When we narrowed our focus, the more popular we became."
Povich is also convinced a snap decision he made for the first paternity show pays dividends now. He learns the back stories of his guests but doesn't peek at the results. He finds out the real father when he opens the envelope onstage. Povich said that enables him to better ask questions he thinks the audience wants to know.
Povich was a longtime broadcast journalist in Washington before entering the syndicated world. He owns a newspaper in Montana, where he has a home with his wife, TV journalist Connie Chung. His $1 million gift last year to his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, established a fund for journalism programs. His dad was the legendary Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich. He knows his way around big-name media circles.
Yet since he went to "A Current Affair" in 1986, Povich knows he's going to get some disapproving looks from other guests at snooty cocktail parties. That's when he heads to the kitchen, or talks to the bartender. His people.
He said he's always wanted to tell stories, and still does. If people look down on him for doing that, he looks down on them.
"Inside, I'm telling these people, `You don't know me,'" he said. "I could be like you for the rest of my life. I just decided not to be. I could be one of your elite journalists. For Christ's sake, I was for a long time. It's not the end-all and be-all. It never was."
Sometimes it bothers Chung. She'll say to her husband that no one knows anymore that he was a good reporter and writer. They don't remember what he did before refereeing shouting matches between estranged spouses.
"I always say, `It doesn't matter, honey, as long as you know,'" he said. "Who cares?"
One night while driving in a Midwestern city with some golf buddies, Povich got lost in a dicey part of town. He stopped at a convenience store for directions, and his fearful friends locked the car doors behind him. A few minutes later, Povich emerged laughing and talking with three men thrilled that their favorite talk-show host had paid a visit.
Fit at age 73, Povich is signed for another season after this, the show's 14th year. He expects he'll keep going beyond that.
And why not? He works seven months a year, a couple of days a week. There's a little commute from Manhattan, but not bad. It's a safe bet that he makes more money a year than his studio audience at any taping. The entire audience. Combined.
A friend recently tut-tutted Povich about the show, shaking his head and saying he wouldn't do it for a million dollars.
Povich's eyes twinkled as he recalled his response.
"I said, `Neither would I.'"
EDITOR'S NOTE -- David Bauder can be reached at dbauder"at"ap.org or on Twitter (at)dbauder.