Most days nearly 6.7 million Americans are watching "The Jerry Springer Show." You may be one of them. You may even be willing to admit it.

If you're like most, you can't help it. You don't even try to help it. It's too funny. Too irresistibly awful.

Take one week earlier this month when the roster went like this: "I'm Pregnant by a Transsexual," followed by "My Girlfriend Is a Cheater," followed by "Klanfrontation!," then "I'm Pregnant . . . Stop Cheating" and finally "You Stole My Lover!"

Thought you were alone? Thought everybody was watching "Nightline"? Wrong. Jerry Springer's freakish display of American society's depraved and desperate was one of the best-watched talk shows in the nation. Incredible. True.

Two years after his competitors -- Geraldo, Jenny, Sally Jessy, Ricki, Maury, Montel -- abandoned the guests-from-the-gutter format, Springer has made himself king of the trash heap by piling it on. No subject is too indecent, no individual too pathetic for an appearance on his show. There's hardly a social absurdity you can imagine that Springer hasn't thought of first. "Mom Dated My Classmate"? Been there. "My Sister Slept With My Three Husbands"? Done that. There are teenage call girls, pregnant adulterers, online strippers, goose-stepping racists, topless caterers, feuding relatives and men who cut off their manhood.

It goes like this. A guest comes on, confesses to some horrible secret: He's two-timing his girlfriend, she's pregnant by another man, he's gay, she's gay, he's a she -- whatever. The confession starts a tussle. Or a cat fight, or a bare-knuckle brawl. Furniture is thrown. Security steps in. Bleep, bleep, bleep: unsuitable language.

In the all-important November sweeps, Springer doubled the number of people watching his show from the year before. He is slowly but surely creeping up behind the queen of daytime talk, Oprah Winfrey, overtaking her among a key demographic, women 18-34, and tying her ratings in the last week of December. In the three cities where "Springer" airs against "Oprah," Atlanta, Cleveland and New Orleans, he now frequently beats her. He usually beats Rosie O'Donnell in Philadelphia and Baltimore, where they air at the same time, and easily kills Jay Leno and David Letterman in Los Angeles. (Washington, traditionally not a Springer-friendly city, is a rare exception. The show generally loses to local newscasts at 11 p.m. and attracts fewer than 10 percent of the viewers at 11:35 p.m., against "Nightline," Letterman and Leno.)

What are we to make of this? Does it mean anything at all?

That depends on whom you ask. Some say it's harmless entertainment -- mindless, meaningless voyeurism. Others believe it's a sign of the end of civilization as we know it, exploitation not only of the weak but of the stupid, for fun. There are those who say it's all choreographed, prepped and staged for the audience (including the occasional use of actors). Then there are those who think it's all too real and could end in disaster -- murder, maiming, who knows?

But Springer's not any of these. "I think it's the silliest show in the world," he says, which apparently for him makes it all okay. "This is fun. Silly. Outrageous." He continues: "It's a cultural cartoon, a purely voluntary show." He laughs. "I think we save the taxpayers money spent on the defense budget -- since we're in 50 countries, and once they see the show, they totally lose interest in trying to take us over."

So is the former serious newsman and Cincinnati mayor proud of his creation? "I'm proud of its success," he hedges. "How the hell did I ever get a top show? I'm proud of that. But as I said, this is not a show that has any worth other than one hour of escapist entertainment." Objects of Ridicule

Springer's detractors don't mince their words.

"Some people think it's great to humiliate people, see their misfortune and laugh at it," says Jeanne Heaton, an Ohio University psychologist who has written a book about the effects of trashy talk shows on mental health. "But it hardens you to real problems that people suffer. You think this stuff is so beyond, so outrageous, that it makes it comfortable to say, I don't worry about people like that, they're ridiculous.' "

She adds: "We all have to question ourselves: Why is seeing someone else humiliated so intriguing?' "

Why, indeed. There are, in fact, some studies on the matter. Surveys by Heaton and others show that watching programs like Springer's makes some viewers feel that their own problems are not so bad.

Critics assert that Springer doesn't present people's problems in a way that suggests we should care about them; instead his guests become objects of ridicule, stared and jeered at like bearded ladies or five-legged sheep. Advertisers know this, avoiding association with the show despite its soaring ratings.

"There are lots of little murders going on with this show -- of the soul, of the sensibility -- little fragmentations of the personal, psychological fabric," says Leo Braudy, a specialist on mass media and popular culture at the University of Southern California. "It's gossip without any penalties -- none for the viewer, that is, except for a coarsening of his sensibility."

The guests are another story, he says. They may have a severe letdown after going public with their personal travails. "The main reason people appear on these shows is they're thinking that this will solve the problem," he says, "and of course it doesn't. Sometimes it makes their problems worse, because they're exposed. . . . A lot of volatile emotions are released. They can easily go bad. And they usually turn inward rather than outward."

Springer says he provides post-show counseling for those who obviously need it. But he says that even his most violent guests usually make up afterward. "What happens after most shows? Everyone gets together in the green room and says, Can we have pictures?' It's like most people, they blow off steam, and life goes on," he says.

And don't forget, Springer says, people volunteer to be on the show. "No one ever gets on our show who doesn't desperately want to get on," he says. "That's why it's easier for me to sleep at night."

Still, others in the talk show business believe Springer gives the genre a bad name. And they warn that taking the low road can have unforeseen consequences, pointing to the murder of a "Jenny Jones" guest, a young gay man who disclosed his crush on an acquaintance who later killed him..

"Jerry Springer" "is an irresponsible program that doesn't worry about what happens afterward," says Stuart Krasnow, a former producer for Ricki Lake who is launching a new talk show this spring. "I'd hate to see something terrible happen, but in this situation, when the rules start going away, when you push the envelope for too long, something happens."

Springer's defense is a dollop of populism. "You want us to sanitize emotions for the sake of television?" he protests. "These are regular people, unwealthy, who didn't go to Harvard."

In any case, criticism has never stopped Springer. Years ago, as a member of Cincinnati's city council, he was once arrested for having sex with a prostitute, traced by authorities because he wrote her a personal check. Rather than deny the incident, he used it as a platform to gain notoriety and run for mayor, an office he won. Springer's Rise

The change in the Springer show's fortunes began in the spring of 1994, when it was a bit more serious, more issue-oriented, and about to get canned. The owners, Multimedia Entertainment, said, "You have until November to make the numbers better, or the show will be canceled," recalls producer Richard Dominick. "So I changed the show to go after the college crowd."

But Multimedia was uncomfortable with the new format of sex and conflict and made Dominick tone it down. Then the show was sold to Gannett, another conservative outfit that, Dominick says, told him to ease up on the sleaze.

But about a year ago, Universal Television bought "Springer." "They said, Do your show and let's see what happens,' " Dominick says. "So I stopped leaving things on the cutting-room floor." He instituted a policy: If it wasn't interesting with the sound off, he wasn't interested.

"Most people sit with the remote control, as I do, hit for three seconds and change it," Dominick says. "My feeling was, if you hit it while flipping, you'll watch it." He started "branding" the show, leaving Springer's name on screen, and the next year kept the show's theme on screen all the time, so the viewer didn't need to have the sound on to get the drift of things.

Ray Richmond, who covers television for Variety, says the success of this strategy has encouraged Springer's producers to go ever sleazier. "What Jerry Springer is being told by the ratings is that you cannot sink low enough, you must go still lower," Richmond says. "So he has gone whole hog. He's like, You said I was wiping the gutter before? Try this.' It's an area we've not seen before -- hyper-sleaze."

By now "Springer" is often unintelligible (as is his new $19.95 "Too Hot for TV" video, an out-of-context montage of fighting and bare-breasted women). Minutes into each program there is a confusing mess onstage, with all the dialogue bleeped out.

Which, for a talk show, is a problem. Dominick says they're working on it. "You have raw emotion, real passion out there. It's one of the things we can't control," he says. "We're working very hard to get rid of the bleeps, to get the point across in words that can be aired on television." All a Big Act?

Still, there is something ritualistic about what "The Jerry Springer Show" has become. Guests come onstage and immediately attack those who are already there, as if they know the drill. At times the antics are so outrageous that it's hard to believe they are real.

Some allege that Springer has used actors to impersonate members of the audience or guests.

A Springer flier posted about a year ago at Chicago's Second City improvisational theater called for "outspoken men and women for an upcoming show." It noted, "This is excellent exposure. . . . We've had numerous guests discovered just by appearing on our show." Springer is taped in Chicago.

Says one Chicago acting teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity: "Do TV shows periodically ask for people to appear onstage and in the audiences? I'd say yes. . . . I have had students come to me and ask if I thought they should do this."

Heaton, the Ohio psychologist, called the show's producers, impersonating an actress. "I said I was interested and what did they have in mind. They asked me if I was willing to be outrageous," she says. "My notes {of the conversation} say, We're looking for someone outspoken and attractive and willing to confront someone named Michael. He used to be a man but he's now a woman.' What I was to do was to say how outrageous it was.

"They make this big point about being so authentic," Heaton says. "It's authentic to a point, but it's also choreographed."

Springer and Dominick adamantly deny that they stage anything these days, though Dominick says they may have done so in the past. "A year and a half ago when we were doing a stupid dating game, if . . . we would need a performance, someone to participate in the dating game, we would then contact Northwestern University -- they have an acting school," he says. "The people onstage right now are real. Come and see for yourself." Then there was that Canadian acting troupe that conned Springer's producers a couple of seasons ago into believing they were a dysfunctional family -- a husband, wife and babysitter in a love triangle. They appeared on the show, then flew back to Canada for a press conference and a good laugh. In that case, Springer sued them for having lied.

Says the Chicago acting teacher: "Anyone who watches television has to assume that some of this is fiction. I look at those shows more as opera than real television anyway."

In fact, "The Jerry Springer Show" is almost a parody of trash talk television. In an earnest "final thought" on his "Too Hot for TV" video, Springer explains why it's all just harmless fun.

"Because we show you outrageous behavior does not mean we endorse it," he intones. "Look, television does not and must not create values, it's merely a picture of all that's out there -- the good, the bad, the ugly." Then he adds: "Believe this: The politicians and companies that seek to control what each of us may watch are a far greater danger to America and our treasured freedom than any of our guests ever were or could be."

Mass media specialist Braudy demurs: "It's a dodgy definition of entertainment when you're using people's real lives as material. . . . These shows feed on our desire to gloat over the problems of other people."

And producer Krasnow is certain that Springer's ratings can't last. "Any extreme can never maintain the marketplace for any period of time, because eventually people grow tired of it. Viewers burn out," he says. "The best comparison is to no-holds-barred pro wrestling. Eventually, the audience grows tired of seeing all the heat. Good television, the best television, is a combination of heat and light." CAPTION: Jerry Springer: "No one ever gets on our show who doesn't desperately want to get on. That's why it's easier for me to sleep at night." CAPTION: On "The Jerry Springer Show" -- creeping up in the ratings behind Oprah Winfrey -- no subject is too indecent.