When, after much hoopla and hype, Geraldo Rivera finally opened gangster Al Capone's giant concrete vault on national television last year, he turned up only dirt and debris instead of a bounty of bones, booze or money.
TV programmers, however, discovered something better: ratings gold. "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults" was the most-watched syndicated special ever and launched a new genre of programming characterized as "live TV events."
Rivera himself followed up with live shows about drug busts, teen-age runaways and Mafia stakeouts. As the November ratings "sweeps" get under way today, two more event programs arrive this week on KTLA Channel 5--without Rivera.
First, the producers of the Capone show are back tonight with a two-hour special that deals with the fabled wreck of the Titanic--and includes the on-camera opening of a small purser's safe and a leather valise only recently retrieved from the ocean bottom. Though broadcast live from Paris, with Telly Savalas hosting, "Return to the Titanic . . . Live" will be seen here on tape delay at 8 p.m. (on Channels 5, 36 and 51).
Then on Saturday at 8 p.m. (also tape delayed) comes "The Search for Houdini," which includes re-creations of some of the master magician's greatest illusions and a seance in which the producers say they will try to contact Houdini from beyond the grave. He died on Halloween night in 1926.
In explaining the appeal of this genre of shows, both producers point to the enduring fascination people have with the topics of their programs. Beyond that, however, they cite the way they are presenting the subjects.
"We're doing these things in a different style," said Doug Llewelyn, co-executive producer (with John Joselyn) of both the Capone and Titanic specials. "We're taking (people) to . . . where some of the major events in history take place."
"The part that I think is exciting for an audience is the fact that anything can happen (because the broadcast is live)," said Ken Ehrlich, who is producing "The Search for Houdini." "It's the closest thing to being there."
Not everyone is enamored of such programming, however.
Dan Gingold, an assistant professor of journalism at USC and a former news producer, said he has no quarrel with programs such as "Return to the Titanic" when they are presenting historical information or recent video footage of a discovery. But he objects when the producers "convert the program into what I characterize almost as a game show. It's like 'Wheel of Fortune.' You create suspense, you create a kind of voyeurism that pulls the audience in. . . ."
"There is a risk of manipulating public curiosity," he said, recalling that the Capone show "took an awful lot of time to reveal nothing. They were manipulating the audience by building an artificial sense of drama."
Producer Llewelyn said that tonight's Titanic program will be informative in "an enthralling and exciting way," presenting interviews with historians and survivors of the famous luxury ship, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912, killing 1,513 of its 2,200 passengers. There also will be video footage from the $2.5-million French-North American salvage expedition to the ship last July.
"This is the TV story of the expedition," Llewelyn said, referring to the operation financed by an investor group called Ocean Research and Exploration Ltd. The TV rights were bought for $1 million, he said, declining to divulge the total cost of the show.
Gingold was skeptical. "If in fact they find some great historic treasure," he said, "then there might be a satisfying payoff for an audience and, in fact, it might even then become newsworthy. But the bottom line is, it's still entertainment and not news."
Ernest Leiser, a former vice president of CBS News who is now a senior fellow at the Gannet Center for Media Studies at Columbia University, said he saw very little in the Titanic program about which to get concerned.
"I think it might be tasteless, but I don't think there's any law prohibiting bad taste," he said.
Gingold said he had no objections to "The Search for Houdini," since it is, according to producer Ehrlich, a pure entertainment show, featuring magicians such as David Copperfield, Harry Blackstone Jr. and Penn & Teller.
As for the seance, Ehrlich said: "I think we're taking it from Houdini's point of view that nobody has proven that anyone can make contact (from beyond the grave). We're just having a lot of fun with the subject."
But Joe Saltzman, chairman of broadcasting at USC's School of Journalism, wonders why hooks such as the seance and the Titanic safe are needed. "The tragedy is that the people producing these programs feel that they have to have a gimmick," he said. "Most of the gimmicks are silly and unnecessary--that's what's so painful about this."