John Joslyn has a word to describe his work. He calls it "docutainment," the mixture of documentary with entertainment to create interesting television specials.
Television critics prefer another word. They call it hype, the mixture of carnival with exploitation to create big ratings.
About the only thing that can be definitively said about Joslyn's Burbank production company, Westgate Entertainment, is that no one televises the live opening of safes and vaults like it does. And no one to date has produced bigger ratings for non-network television shows or seems to have stirred as much controversy.
Last year, Westgate's "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults" featured as host a submachine gun-toting Geraldo Rivera. He was paid $50,000 to shoot the gun on live television, detonate dynamite and kill time in a way that would make a Capone hit man proud while hard hats drilled in vain for two hours searching for any artifacts the late mobster might have left behind in a Chicago hotel basement.
Set Ratings Marks
All the digging produced a couple of Prohibition-era liquor bottles, plenty of Prohibition-era dirt and a chorus of critics calling for the prohibition of Rivera on television.
"It's probably going to be engraved on my tombstone: 'Here's the man who came out of the vault holding two gin bottles,' " said Rivera, the former ABC News correspondent who now hosts a syndicated talk show.
Last month in Paris, Westgate produced "Return to the Titanic . . . Live" with host Telly Savalas in a two-hour program with a historical look at the famous ocean liner, plus underwater footage of the Titanic wreck.
The grand finale of the broadcast culminated with Savalas and French associates opening an assistant purser's safe found on the ocean floor near the shipwreck that contained a black purse with 161 coins. They also opened a bag found in the ship that contained jewelry, coins, cash and trinkets. But one top French photo agency executive associated with the show now says the safe opening was a "farce" because the items allegedly were not found in the safe at all but were probably gathered up later from the shipwreck. The show's producer has disputed that.
Despite widespread criticism, both shows set ratings and advertising records for syndicated, or non-network, television specials in the United States.
The Capone show, financed by Tribune Entertainment in Chicago, was the most watched syndicated program ever; 28.5 million families tuned in. The total domestic and overseas gross was $3 million, with advertisers paying a then-record rate for a syndicated program: $100,000 per 30-second spot.
Set a Record
The Titanic broadcast, backed financially by LBS Communications in New York, grossed $6 million as advertisers paid $200,000 per 30-second spot, a new record. About 22 million families watched the program, making it the second most watched syndicated program, behind only the Capone show.
"I haven't run into anyone yet who didn't see it," said Savalas, who was paid $100,000 to host the Titanic program in front of a black-tie Paris audience.
Although much of the Capone and Titanic shows were live and built to a big bang finish with the opening of a vault or a safe, Westgate isn't the first to use the trick. In 1984, George Plimpton was the host-for-hire as a safe salvaged from the Andrea Doria shipwreck was opened on live television.
But Joslyn and his producers are taking it a step further, weaving in pulsating, MTV-like music for the Titanic special that sounds like it came from a James Bond movie sound track. To build tension, armed guards were stationed around the studio in full view of the cameras.
"It's set dressing. It's how we display our wares," Joslyn said, although he insists that in both the Titanic and Capone shows he had to hire armed guards because he feared that Middle East terrorists might try to disrupt the shows.
Westgate got its start in the late 1970s when Joslyn, 42, a former advertising salesman for CBS, teamed up with Doug Llewelyn, 48, a former television reporter, Llewelyn is now familiar to viewers as the one who interviews litigants after Judge Wapner has given his verdict on the non-Westgate show, "The People's Court.
With a $25,000 investment, Joslyn and Llewelyn built a successful video press kit business by taping programs that resembled news stories, mostly about coming movies, that were distributed to television stations. Joslyn has since bought out Llewelyn's share of the business for an undisclosed sum.
Joslyn, now sole owner, oversees his privately held company from an office in a renovated eight-room house one block from the Burbank Studios. Thanks to the success of the Titanic show, Joslyn expects to generate about $6 million in revenue this year with profit of about $600,000. But he is shifting away from video press kits, and is trying to put together his first film production--a Capone feature for Home Box Office to directed by John Milius.