by | Mar 14, 1993 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

When tragedy strikes — a murder, a terrorist bombing, a devastating hurricane — there are some who rush to help, some who feel sympathy, some who simply watch.

And there are some who pull out contracts and say, “Great stuff! Sign here!”

These people are TV moviemakers. They have no shame. They are the ambulance chasers of the techno-generation.

No sooner had the dust settled from the World Trade Center bombing, than these people were all over, fighting to hand out checks for “official” stories. The result: “Terror In The Towers,” which NBC will air in May, three months after the explosion.

Hurricane Andrew, which will be remembered by most victims as the worst wind that ever hit their lives, was also the wind that blew Hollywood into town, snatching up the story of a weatherman who broadcast from his basement.

The result: “Hurricane Andrew” on NBC.

Still, nothing tops what is going on this week. In Waco, Texas, a maniac who claims to be Jesus Christ holds 100 people in a bloody standoff with police. This, obviously, is too good for producers to pass up. Never mind that it isn’t over, that more people may die, that parents and relatives are still praying for their loved ones trapped inside the cult complex. Never mind. NBC has already begun “In The Line Of Duty: Assault in Waco,” which airs in May, sweeps month.

Assuming the siege is over by then.

Otherwise, I guess, it’s a miniseries. Don’t buy ‘it sells’

Now, Hollywood has always been weird. But what kind of person reads the newspapers, sees a cult murder and says, “There’s a good movie. Let’s buy it.” It is bloodsucking of the lowest kind. It is also huge business.

There are two reasons why TV has turned real life into a gold rush.

1) It’s easy and quick. They don’t have to write a script that maybe people will like; they steal the truth, re-package it, and put it back on the table while the plate’s still warm.

2) It sells.

The second reason is, of course, why TV does everything. And why its executives will say, “We’re only giving people what they want.” Every time I hear that sentence, I think of laboratory experiments, where researchers hook rats on sugar and let them keep going back until they die. Just giving them what they want, of course.

Somewhere along the line, someone should take responsibility. Someone should say, “It may sell, people may watch it, but it’s wrong. We can do better.”

Instead, we have Amy Fisher.

Fisher was an unknown teenager who slept with a married man, then shot his wife. It is not a heroic story. It is not even original. But it did happen near New York, when tabloids dubbed her “Long Island Lolita.” And before you could blink, all three networks — CBS, ABC and NBC — were offering money to anyone involved, the kid, the husband, the wife, the police, for their
“official” account.

Result: all three networks made movies, two of which aired on the same night. Ratings were sky-high.

For attempting murder, Fisher was a star. Approaching ‘Network’ proportion

There are several real dangers in this, beyond having to watch Drew Barrymore act. One is the likelihood that some sicko will commit a terrible act simply to become famous. If you doubt the promise of fame drives men to evil, you’ve forgotten John Hinckley and Mark David Chapman.

Secondly, in a country where more and more people rely on TV for information, the danger in these movies is that viewers think they’re true. They believe them. Once upon a time, people didn’t read hardcover books because they said, “I’ll wait for the paperback to come out.” Now they can skip the news and say, “I’ll wait until the miniseries comes out.”

The difference is, TV movies are made for ratings, not record. They are not the truth. They are nowhere near it. They are designed for the slick and the sensational. The Waco film will be written, cast, filmed and edited in eight weeks. Will the blood be dry by then?

Last month, Rob and Dee Dubin got lost in the snowy mountains of Aspen. They were missing for days. Assumed dead. Miraculously, they were found. They survived. You would think they’d spend the rest of the year kissing the ground, thanking their good fortune.

Instead, before their fingers defrosted, they signed with the William Morris agency. They are courting TV movie offers.

I don’t know what kind of country we live in when the first thought after a tragedy is “TV!” But I think of the film “Network,” where a man is killed for the sake of ratings, and I figure we’re getting closer every day. Truth is, the only disaster that might be off-limits to TV is the end of the world.

But only because there’d be no one left to watch it.


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