True Confessions 

Of a true crime TV producer

The lights are dim and all three actors are in their places. I’m standing in a doorway at the back of the room casually overseeing the production of a crime scene re-creation for a show called “Final Justice.” We’re working on the pilot episode, which may or may not air someday on the Lifetime “television for women” Network.

A crew shooting 16 mm film has set the lights just right and positioned the camera. The scene they’re about to film will re-create the gruesome death of a Massachusetts woman who was stabbed repeatedly by her husband while their four-year-old daughter stood by and watched. The little girl playing the unwilling spectator is an aspiring child actress with an adorable tendency to speak her thoughts. During the shoot, she giggles and repeats, “I’m going to be on TV.”

Trying to stay out of the way, I watch as the crew runs through a couple takes. The actor makes spastic stabbing motions, thrusting a plastic knife with retractable blade down upon the actress while she flails on the bed. Standing nearby is the little girl. She’s holding a stuffed animal. An eerie light defines her silhouette.

We’re shooting at the director’s house, where he’s made a cottage industry out of producing all kinds of re-creations for cable TV. After several takes, the director approaches me. He’s a smart, thirty-something guy and easy to work with. Still, he catches me off guard when he asks, “Do you want any blood in this scene? I’ve got some in the fridge upstairs.”

There by the horseradish and Miracle Whip, my colleague has a ketchup squeeze bottle full of fake blood. I try to compute an answer using my own television calculus. Little girl, plus multiple stab wounds, plus Lifetime, “television for women.”

“No, no blood,” I say. “Not with the kid in the scene.”

The director smiles and says, “Sounds good.”

Later, back at the office, my executive producer tells me I made the wrong call.

“They’re going to want blood,” he says.

But by now it’s too late. The film’s been shot, the scene is complete and ready to be mixed into the segment I’ve produced for “Final Justice.” Weeks later, after the segment is edited and shipped to L.A., I learn that Lifetime has decided to not pick up the show.

When I hear the bad news, I can’t help but think, “Maybe there wasn’t enough blood.”

Like a growing number of shows on cable TV, “Final Justice” aspires to be a true crime “documentary” program where the gory details of heinous tragedies are teased out between commercial breaks. I spent a couple of years writing and producing these shows, one for the A&E Network called “City Confidential,” and another for Court TV called “Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege and Justice.”

Blood is an essential ingredient in these shows, especially when it comes from a gaping machete wound or shotgun blast. In the script, it’s important to use the correct killing verbs. If “hacked” doesn’t fit, try “chopped,” “gouged” or “mangled.” Blood soaks the workplace. It’s everywhere, and that bothered me.

But I came to understand that blood provides the gloss necessary to get programs approved by the networks. It’s a given component and mostly a distraction to producers who’d rather be doing something more high-minded, but can’t afford to turn down the work. Blood pays the bills.

At least, that’s my take on the show “City Confidential.” Part travelogue, part crime story, “City Confidential” is one of A&E’s premiere programs. TV Guide described the show’s hardboiled writing as “deliciously over-heated.” It’s over the top and as campy as it is craven.

Describing the court proceedings of a murder trial in Arkansas, one script recalls how “The prosecution’s case came apart like slow roasted pork.” And in the Philadelphia “City Confidential,” I tried to evoke the innocent, early 1980s when cocaine had yet to become a social menace and “the Liberty Bell still had the best known crack in town.”

Every episode of “City Confidential” is divided into five acts. Act one is the longest, and most fun to produce. In it, the camera takes viewers to a seemingly peaceful place: Austin, Boston, Denver and dozens of other locations over the course of eight seasons. In act one, viewers are soothed by sunsets and skylines, couples walking hand in hand and children skipping rope.

The audience knows where all this is headed—straight toward a crime scene described in the gravelly drawl of narrator Paul Winfield. They know that Winfield’s favorite word is “murrderr.” But in act one, the bodies have yet to drop. In these first 15 minutes—and in other tiny pockets throughout the show—producers can slip in pointed commentary and clever character sketches.

In the “City Confidential” act one hall of fame, there’s Spider Bob of Carlsbad, N.M., who sat for his interview with tarantulas crawling across his face. There’s the Purple Lady in Chattanooga, Tenn., a socialite who’s taken an oath to wear only purple. And in Gibsonton, Fla., there’s an all-star cast of sideshow personalities who recall their days working with the late, great Lobster Boy.

As the “Gib Town” episode recounted, Lobster Boy was done in by family members fed up with his physical abuse. On the carnival midway, he was a crowd favorite, but that’s because Lobster Boy’s fans couldn’t see “the iron claw inside his velvet mitt.”

This kind of purple prose continues to draw roughly two million loyal fans to their televisions every Sunday night when “City Confidential” airs on A&E at 7 p.m. When I started producing “City Confidential,” it aired on Tuesday nights. Then it went to Wednesday. A&E has found that no matter where it falls in the line-up, viewers follow.

“City” fans are a loyal bunch, so the show’s writers don’t shy away from pressing their own agendas. Scripts are sprinkled with comments about smart urban planning and other progressive environmental policies.

When writing a “City script,” I always tried to impose my views. In the Carlsbad episode, I brought to light the town’s short-sighted eagerness to stimulate the local economy by welcoming a massive radioactive waste dump known as WIPP. In the Chattanooga show, I lauded the city for its efforts at downtown renewal. And in the show I produced in Bigfork, I offered subliminal comments about gasoline conservation.

The script reads, “When SUV owners daydream, they fantasize about places like Bigfork, Mont. They imagine the banks of Flathead Lake, the peaks of nearby Glacier National Park and parking spots large enough to accommodate their spotless Ford Explorers.”

I wound up in Bigfork in the summer of 2000 after my boss told me to, “Think of a place you’d like to go then figure out if it’s been the scene of an atrocious crime.” I logged on to Lexis-Nexis and typed in “Montana” and “murder.” Up popped several articles about a wheelchair athlete and certified sociopath from Bigfork named Ted Ernst. I wrote up a pitch, it was approved by the A&E higher-ups in Manhattan, and I was on a plane to Kalispell.

As most folks in the Flathead would like to forget, Ted Ernst was a hometown hero with a homicidal streak. He was an Olympic caliber athlete who was paralyzed after falling from a tree as a child. Then at age 19 on Christmas night in 1997, he and his younger brother Jesse were surprised during the latest in a series of burglaries around Bigfork.

That Christmas Eve, Ted and Jesse targeted the home of pop psychologist John Bradshaw. Bradshaw made his money writing books and coining terms like “inner child.” He was a part-time resident of Bigfork, so his neighbor, Larry Streeter, often looked after his place. Streeter—a father of three and namesake of the Bigfork landmark “Streeter’s Corner” where Larry once owned a gas station—was coming home from a Christmas party when he noticed tire tracks in the snow leading up to Bradford’s house. He drove up to investigate and found Ted Ernst sitting alone in his car.

The Ernst brothers had a system worked out where Ted relayed commands to Jesse via a walkie-talkie. Ted did the thinking and Jesse did the legwork.

Minutes after catching the boys in the act, Streeter lay dead in the snow. Ted later confessed that he shot Streeter several times. As I learned in my interview with Streeter’s widow Serena, the family found Larry’s body in a pool of frozen blood. Serena described this scene in detail in front of the camera. In one sense, her candor was a victory for me, the producer. Her screen presence was gripping and graphic in its grief. It was what the network might consider good TV.

In another sense, Serena’s tears and the nightmarish sound bites rolling off her lips offered me little more than an opportunity to feel ashamed of myself. The chase was over. I’d caught the ambulance. Now I was videotaping the carnage inside.

But at the time of the interview—in August of 2000—Jesse Ernst was appealing his conviction and sentence of 100 years in prison for being an accessory to murder. Looking back, it’s clear that I was acting as an accessory in the Streeter family’s efforts to make their loss known.

At least, that’s what I told myself. A lot of the media’s coverage of the case focused on Ted and Jesse, two Christian kids gone bad.

Larry Streeter got lost somewhere in the stampede to figure out what made the Ernst brothers tick. I hoped “City Confidential” could champion the Streeter’s cause. The family wanted to remind the world that Christian or not, Jesse took part in a crime that resulted in murder.

As Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont told it, “They killed a human being, that I liked…someone who was good for the community. You know, none of that’s coming out. It seems like all the attention is on the Ernst Brothers and to hell with the Streeters.” (Months later, Jesse Ernst’s conviction was overturned.)

When the Bigfork episode aired, a local paper asked Sheriff Dupont what he thought about the show. He said it accurately reported the facts of the case. But Dupont and others took issue with something I introduced in act one.

Seems there’s considerable disagreement in Bigfork about whether or not the village is cursed. The town’s ghostly vibe was reportedly first noticed by Native Americans who came to the area to fish. My best source on this was Republican state Sen. Bob Keenan, owner of the Bigfork Inn. Keenan thinks it’s true; that there has always been some kind of unspoken darkness residing in Bigfork’s shadows. Others, including a local reporter interviewed in the show, think that’s a bunch of bull.

Either way, the Bigfork script is guilty of overplaying the spook factor. But like blood, hyperbole is one of crime TV’s necessary components. The trick is to find something curious and make it sensational. In the “City Confidential” episode set in Gatlinburg, Tenn.—a tourist trap gateway to Smoky Mountains National Park—I drastically exaggerated the importance of the corndog to the local economy. And in the Aspen episode, which rehashed the tragic demise of ski legend Spider Sabich, my cracks about turtlenecks, fondue and Chardonnay were probably uncalled for.

Then again, without all this additional color, “City Confidential” would be awash in nothing but blood red. Little quips about corndogs and SUVs are the bones I threw myself while working in true crime. I tried not to dwell on the less innocent details of each episode. They only reminded me that the public’s tolerance for violence on television is reaching a saturation point.

In 2001, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 80 percent of parents think there’s too much killing, maiming and stalking on the tube. But as my executive producer once said to me, “Ask anyone working in television and they’ll tell you there’s not enough.”

That’s because demand from the networks for shows with blood, guns and chalk outlines remains steady. More wholesome shows, at least in my experience, get the ax. Take A&E’s “The Competition,” a documentary show that celebrated odd contests and quirky corners of Americana.

I loved working on this program. The highlight might have been my trip to Houston where I profiled a mondo sculptor known as Scrap Daddy who liked to race snow shovels and build giant catapults.

Unfortunately, even with marquee talent like Scrap Daddy, A&E cancelled “The Competition” after only a season and a half. As a headline in the The New York Times reported last year, these are “Hard Times for TV Documentaries.” True documentaries, that is, the mostly bloodless sort found on PBS, HBO and the screens of art house cinemas. The lucky few get to work on these, while many in the TV-producing pack schlep off to another city in search of police tape.

At the same time A&E was killing off “The Competition,” Lifetime and Court TV were looking for ways to replicate the bloody success of “City Confidential.” Some networks think they can bank on crime TV. They envision loyal viewers clamoring for their “Investigative Reports” with Bill Kurtis, their “Forensic Files,” their “True Stories of the Arkansas Highway Patrol” and their “Final Justice.”

After more than a year of stops and starts, “Final Justice” is ready for broadcast. A Lifetime Network press release recently announced that the show will begin airing in January. The real, live Erin Brockovich will host each episode, which promise to deliver stories about women righting wrongs. I’m guessing it will be a hit.

I’d also guess that many of the people expressing disgust at television violence are the same folks who channel surf their evenings away in search of true crime programming. If a pollster happens to call, most would say, “Yes, there is too much violence on television. But you know, that Lobster Boy really had it coming.”

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