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July 22, 1987|DENNIS HUNT | Times Staff Writer

Like millions of Americans, home video executive Steve Chamberlain was enthralled by Lt. Col. Oliver L. North's testimony in the Iran- contra hearings. Midway through, he had an idea.

"He was becoming a hero. People saw him as a magnetic figure. He was a natural for home video."

At the same time, executives from MPI Home Video had the same idea.

As a result, faster than you can say new American hero , Olliemania has invaded home video. MPI and Forum Home Video are racing to get cassettes of North's testimony to video outlets as quickly as possible.

In the home-video, fast-buck wars, MPI will strike first. Its 90-minute "Oliver North: Memo to History" will be available Friday for $19.95. "You can have Oliver North for your very own--forever," proclaims Jaffer Ali, MPI's vice president of sales.

Forum's two-hour "Lt. Col. Oliver North: His Story, CNN Highlights of the Iran-Contra Hearings" ($24.98) is due Tuesday in concert with Turner Home Entertainment and Cable News Network.

As far as could be determined, these are the only two companies marketing North tapes right now.

Both MPI's Ali and Chamberlain, vice president and general manager of Turner Home Entertainment, got the idea for these home videos at the same time--on the third day of North's six days of testimony before the House and Senate committees investigating the Reagan Administration's sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan contras.

"You could see that America had fallen in love with this guy," Ali said. "They liked his passion, his charisma, his directness, his patriotism. The guy was a natural for home video."

Originally, Chamberlain, who also served as executive producer of Forum's tape, planned to price it at $39.95, gearing it more to the rental market than to sales to the public. But last weekend, he said, he changed his mind: "The response we were getting to him at CNN was so strong that we decided to go for the sales market. So we decided to drop the price to make it more affordable to buyers."

Editing teams from both companies have been working frantically to assemble these programs to get them to stores as quickly as possible. Each was working with tapes of the hearings as they went out on live television.

The Forum tape is the work of a seven-member CNN crew, who worked three days to produce the video. "We'll have CNN mentioned on the tape," Chamberlain said. "The prestige of the organization will help us in the marketplace."

MPI, which used a five-person editing team, will ship an impressive 102,000 copies to distributors and retailers. Forum's initial shipment will be a more modest 30,000.

Though both companies stand to make potentially huge profits, North won't get a penny of it. Because of the way they obtained the footage, the companies say they don't have to worry about paying him.

"We got our footage from a satellite feed," Ali said. "We don't have to pay North for this. He's part of the hearings, and congressional hearings belong to the American people. It's public domain. We've gotten good legal advice on this."

Forum's footage, Chamberlain explained, comes from a pool feed: "We (at CNN), along with other major networks, pay for this pool feed. We have the right to use material on this feed for something like a home video. The big question in deciding to do this video was whether we had the right to use the material on this feed without going through North. Our legal counsel assured us we did."

In editing the tapes, both companies carefully avoided taking a political stand. "We've attempted to present this thing in the same light that CNN presents the hearings--in a very objective manner," Chamberlain said. "We presented it like it was, giving a total fact base. We didn't leave anything out because of political reasons."

Said Ali about the MPI tape: "We didn't want to intrude our politics into the tape. This tape isn't an appeal for contra aid and it doesn't oppose it, either."

There's a danger in this rush to market. Since the hearings are still in progress, subsequent revelations may tarnish North and, as quickly as he became a hero, may turn him into an instant outcast.

"That's the risk you have to take," Chamberlain said. "We've realized that all along."

Ali, however, doesn't see any problems: "This guy's image is like concrete. You couldn't scratch it with a bulldozer."

Neither company plans to single out another witness in the Iran-contra hearings for a home-video program. But Chamberlain said that Turner Home Entertainment is considering putting together a home-video compilation of the hearings after they are completed.

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