THE dividing line between real life and entertainment is thin enough in the United States of America at the best of times. But when the Chicago City Council decided to call in Jerry Springer to tell them exactly where that line gets drawn on his bizarre and outrageous chat show, they got more than they bargained for; or perhaps less.

Mr Springer's show features real life people Telling All. All is often too much for the partners, lovers and spouses who accompany them, and fights regularly break out as Lamar discovers that LuAnne is a transvestite, married to someone else, having it away with the local youth soccer team, or all three. Chairs fly, hair is torn and clothes are ripped. It is all most entertaining.

But the good people of the Chicago City Council, prompted by a complaint, wanted to find out if these fights were real. If they were, then security guards should break them up. If they were not, then Mr Springer was a sham and he needed an entertainment licence.

Alderman Edward Burke tried repeatedly to pin down Mr Springer, while the host himself deftly avoided the questions. "My show is overall for real," he said. It "seems real to me". Asked if he would stop the violence, as requested by the network which runs the programme, he said: "I don't know. They say no. They're the boss." For his part, Mr Springer was clearly irritated by questions about his salary and contract, saying: "I'm not sure this is your business." And he was fiercely defensive of the value of the programme.

Indeed, he argued that his show was in fact a morality play. "There's a lot of wrestling and rolling around that goes on on the show. I'll admit that. But I suggest that the violence we see in other media such as television dramas and movies never looks very bad. To most viewers watching it looks very enticing.

"The people who fight on my show never look glamorous. The guy loses the girl. The audience boos the person who can't act correctly and berates the person. I do a commentary at the end of the show. No other programme or movie can say they do that."

The hearings rapidly tumbled into chaos, as fans clapped and cheered while the council lost its collective temper. At one point a councillor loudly complained that another had interrupted. "Hit her with a chair," advised Mr Springer.

Those who know him only as the Titan of Trash would be startled by his resume. Born in London in 1944 after his family fled Europe to escape the Nazis, he moved to the US five years later. He put his law degree to good use working for Senator Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign, and later helped get the Constitution amended to lower the voting age to 18. At 33, he was the mayor of Cincinnati. He went on to be one of the city's most respected TV journalists, winning seven Emmy awards.

But since 1991, his career has taken a different and more lucrative turn, taking him where other networks feared to tread. In truth, there is much worse rubbish available these days ("When Good Pets Go Bad," etc). Anyway, as Mr Springer reminded us, "It's just television." When asked if film of the meeting would end up on his show, he just shrugged and said: "Maybe. If it's good."