Maury Povich is not your father, but he plays one on TV.
For more than 20 years, the tanned, toothy talk-show host has welcomed out-of-control teens, single mothers, suspected fathers, and lying cheaters into his studio to let them work out their issues on national television. Povich is the caring listener, the consoler of the deceived, the rational father figure offering advice and DNA results. In the show's more than 3,000 episodes, he has hosted hundreds of women hoping to learn the paternity of their children and as many would-be dads who do celebratory dances after finding out it wasn't them. It is surreal, hypnotic television.
Critics have accused Povich of exploiting poor people by putting members of America's lower socioeconomic levels on daytime TV so all of us can gawk at their very real problems while folding our laundry. Povich doesn't see it like that. For him, the show is a place where guests can sort complicated issues, determine who should be paying child support, and maybe find a fresh start. Guests are offered counseling after their appearance. Many take it.
Whether it is a cause or symptom of social decay, Maury remains a juggernaut. Last year, the program delivered an average of 2.2 million daily viewers and has been the number one syndicated talk show among adults 18 to 34 for the last six seasons, according to NBCUniversal publicist Sara Paige. Originally filmed in Manhattan, Maury now tapes in Stamford, Connecticut, in the same studio as Jerry Springer and The Steve Wilkos Show. Its 20th season launches today.
At 78, Povich has long outlasted the 90s tabloid talk show phenomenon that gave rise to the original incarnation of his hour-long program. He grew up in Washington, DC, and began his career as a news reporter in the mid 60s. (His father was legendary Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich.) Rupert Murdoch recruited him as the host of A Current Affair in 1986. The Maury Povich Show launched in '91 and transformed into Maury in '98. Povich has been married to journalist Connie Chung for more than 30 years. (She celebrated Maury's 2,500th episode in 2013 by jumping out of a giant cake.) The couple have an adopted son, and Povich has two other children from a previous marriage. It is as a family man that he feels he can relate to his guests and their desire to determine the truth of their own family dynamics.
On the phone from New York, Povich is funny and self-deprecating, aware of his reputation but firmly in the give-no-fucks phase of a very zero-fucks-given career.
VICE: There's such a particular thematic template to your show. What has it been like doing variations of the same story for more than 3,000 episodes?
Maury Povich: I started in the news business. I've always believed the best kind of news is storytelling. Even though I've done thousands of shows on these subjects, I believe each story is unique. That's the way I treat it, and that's the way my audience feels. That's why they want to hang around for the result.
At what point was it decided, "Paternity is our thing"?
Obviously, in television, you're a creature of the ratings. If your ratings pop when you do this particular theme, you're going to do more of those shows than other shows. We still do out-of-control teens shows, where we have these kids who want to run the streets and get pregnant and have babies at 14, but not as frequently because they don't rate as high as the paternity shows.
A paternity show has the classic Shakespearean themes. There is love. There is lust. There is betrayal. There is conflict. All these Shakespearean themes are crashing together in a paternity test. A woman is accusing a person of being the father of her child. He is denying it. He is saying she is not the kind of woman who was staying with one man, and she is saying that he doesn't take on his responsibility and has betrayed her. Basically, that is a real soap opera playing in real time, and within 12 minutes, you get a result. "You are the father!" "You are not the father!" The audience really doesn't know [what's going to happen]. A woman says, "I'm a thousand percent sure that he's the father," and then he ends up not being the father. It's that conflict, and we hang on the story until the result is given. The audience at home and in the studio is caught up in the story, and they pick a favorite. They want the guy to be the father, or they don't.
Have the people who come on your show changed in any way during the past 20 years?
When it comes to human instincts, do we ever really change? Haven't we always had sensitivities? The only difference to me in terms of what we like to watch or what we think about ourselves is that more of it is out in public than it used to be. When I was growing up, everything was behind closed doors. Nobody talked about anything. If a woman was going to have a baby out of wedlock, she went away and had it in an unwed mother's home, and the child disappeared. Now, everything is talked about.
Do you think you're one of the people who helped break down that barrier?
I would not come close to wanting that title. Lord knows I have not had the life experiences that my guests have had. I have not gone through what they have, but there's some basic human instinct I have that they feel that they can unburden themselves in my home, meaning my show. That's the biggest gratification that I have: that somehow they're very trusting of me. I'm proud of that.
What is it about you that makes people trust you enough to come and share the intimate details of their lives?
If there is a problem we can handle, we help them. We'll try to find some psychological help and counseling where they live. We come back later and update their story to find out if the guy really got involved in the life of the child. They believe their lives can be turned by coming on the show. I think in many of the stories that does happen. They feel that I am safe for them to unburden themselves and talk about their innermost feelings. Why, I do not know. I just think that I'm like any other basic human. We have sensitivities, and we want to be able to help if we can. People trust me. They do. In the old days, when [my show] had a reputation unlike it has today, people trusted us. In my own way, I haven't lost that.
What are people seeking when they sign up to be on the show?
More than anything else, it's a new start. Somehow they can restart their lives and wipe the slate clean and have a new beginning. Some of them do, and some of them don't. I think that's not the expectation but the hope.
There was a woman named Moyisha who came on your show four times to test the paternity of six men, none of whom turned out to be the father of her child. Why does someone like that keep coming back?
The main reason is that they know that finding the father of a child, so the child has two parents instead of one, is going to give the child a better chance at life. People denigrate women who come back on the show multiple times, but I think they're very brave. They have to overcome embarrassment in the hope that their child will end up with two parents. Whether they want the father involved for emotional or financial reasons, that's why they come on. I give them credit. I think it's an act of bravery beyond the embarrassment a lot of people feel they deserve.
Does this all affect you personally? Do you go home at night and think, We have to find the father of Moyisha's baby?
If I think there's a lot of meaning to a particular story, I will make sure that the producers follow up and make sure everything is OK once they get back home. When I go home, I've got my own life. I've got my own family. I've got the same issues that everybody does, just in a different way.
I can't imagine you have the same issues as a lot of people who come on your show.
Look, generally I worry about my family, and my guests are worrying about their families. Maybe it's in a different way, but human beings are naturally involved with a family and those close to them.
On the show, there's typically a moment when you're consoling someone, usually the woman. Are you really feeling that?
Absolutely, because I always know that if she can't find that father of that child, that child is at risk of not being able to grow up with a better chance at life. That's a fact. There's got to be two people in a child's life for them to have a better shot at a successful life. I give these single mothers a lot of credit if they can pull it off and raise these kids to be responsible human beings.
You've criticized Teen Mom, which addresses some of the same topics as your show. What do you think the difference is?
I hate when I'm criticized for exploiting people, because I don't believe I do, and I don't know if other shows have that sensitivity. That's my biggest complaint.
Because you really believe you're being sensitive to your guests?
Yeah, and also I think we play a role in changing their lives. Some of them.
There are obviously major criticisms of your show. People accuse you of exploiting your guests and exploiting poor people and African American people in particular. Do you think there's something your critics just don't understand?
They haven't been there. They don't have a clue, in terms of these peoples' lives. I'm the receiver of these stories, and I know what these people are going through. To sit in a rather antiseptic space and criticize what I'm doing when they have no clue about the lives of these people, it's classic elitism as far as I'm concerned. I have a very hard time criticizing things if I haven't been there.
I started in the 1980s on national television on a show called A Current Affair—a tabloid newsmagazine I believe kind of changed network news coverage forever. I used to get criticized for that, yet all the major network news divisions saw the success of that show and changed their outlook on what kind of news stories to cover. I laugh at it these days. I've been dealing with this for 30 years.
What you do—and what you've been doing for decades—is fearless in a way, because you do take a lot of flak. Do you consider yourself a fearless person?
I'll put it to you this way: If my wife and I go to a media event or some eastside party and everybody is talking to everybody and they're not talking to me, I just go into the kitchen. I've got a great audience right there who loves me. All the people working in the kitchen. My people.
What's been your proudest moment on the show?
First of all, I think it's the longevity, and the proudest moments are when I find these families years later, and the show was a turning point in their lives. You just can't beat that. That's what I will cherish.
What's been the lowest moment?
A woman might come on ten times to find the father, and we haven't been able to find him. That's the low point. That child will have to overcome a lot.
So many of these men are thrilled to find out they're not the dad. When you see these guy doing end-zone dances after getting that news, what are you thinking?
The first thing I say to them backstage after they do their dance is, "I do not want you to take it out on this woman. She made an honest mistake. She thought you were the father, and you're not. I don't want you to hold that against her."
Do you think about retiring?
The NBC people keep telling me the show is too popular for me to leave. I just came off an 11-day golf trip. I feel great. I'll be there for as long as NBC and my audience want me. And frankly, the money is good.
What do you think your legacy will be?
I'm going to be remembered for two lines: "You are the father" and "You are not the father."
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