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Crime Doesn't Pay Enough

'America's Most Wanted' Is No Longer Wanted by Fox; Viewers, L.A.'s Police Chief, the DEA, Even the FBI Are Upset

August 31, 1996|SHARON BERNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dear Mr. Murdoch, the letters begin--and they are from correspondents as varied as Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and a viewer who thinks the Fox chairman is part of a conspiracy--don't kill "America's Most Wanted."

Even the FBI has weighed in, putting out an unsigned statement in the agency's classic terse style saying that the series, whose last broadcast is scheduled for Sept. 21, "empowered millions of Americans to safely and constructively combat crime."

Since 1988, when it made its debut as one of the first television programs in the so-called "reality" genre, "America's Most Wanted" has stuck to a fairly simple approach: Producers comb the nation for interesting criminal cases in which the suspect has fled or is in hiding. The crime is then reenacted for a segment on the air, and the suspect's name and photograph are broadcast. Viewers are asked to call in if they have any information about the suspect or the crime.

Hosted by anti-crime activist John Walsh, whose 6-year-old son was kidnapped and killed in 1981, it's a formula that has worked quite well over the years, providing programs that are comparatively cheap to produce and garnering decent if not sky-high ratings. Fox executives credit the show with helping to propel the then-young network into prominence, and producers claim to have played a role in the capture of more than 400 fugitives.

But reality shows are not as popular or as lucrative as they once were, and "America's Most Wanted" has slipped in the ratings, from an average of 9.3 in its first season to 7 last season.

So after a final show aimed at rounding up criminals who have slipped through the program's nets over the years, "America's Most Wanted" will leave the Fox lineup.

Law enforcement officials are bemoaning its departure.

"The citizens of this entire country are going to suffer when that show goes off the air," said Det. Stephen Fisk, a homicide detective in the Van Nuys division of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Fisk said that last fall, when he was pursuing alleged serial killer Glen Rogers, accused of killing a Van Nuys woman and several other people, only "America's Most Wanted" was willing to broadcast his plea for help on the case.

" 'America's Most Wanted' is the only program that helped us out," Fisk said. "After they went national, we started getting phone calls."

The program was not directly responsible for Rogers' capture, Fisk said, but it certainly helped get the ball rolling. Rogers is awaiting trial on murder charges in Florida.

Det. Rick Jackson of the LAPD's robbery-homicide division said he appeared on the Washington-based show in 1990 in pursuit of a man suspected of killing a close friend of then-unknown Heidi Fleiss.

After working the phones after the show and taking clues from callers, Jackson boarded a plane to return to Los Angeles. Before he got home, the parolee they were seeking had turned himself in at the Police Department's Central station.

" 'America's Most Wanted,' from a police perspective, is really crucial," Jackson said.

Bill Coveny, senior vice president of current programming at Fox, said that concerns voiced by fans as well as by law enforcement officials have spurred the network to consider producing specials, syndicated shows and movies-of-the-week based on "Most Wanted" cases.

Coveny, who is set to leave Fox shortly for a programming job at CBS, said financial as well as creative concerns played a part in the series' demise. A key element, he said, was a move on the part of programmers away from the reality format, which he said "has been around for a while."

"You have to consider revenue, but it wasn't exclusively that," Coveny said. "We as a network were trying to make some programming moves to try to put other types of programming on."

In fact, Coveny said, the Fox lineup for this fall includes only one reality-based show, the long-running "Cops." The Saturday night slot occupied by "America's Most Wanted," he said, will be used for comedy.

"They said the economies were not there," said Lance Heflin, the show's longtime executive producer.

Heflin, a former CBS News producer, said that when he left the network to join "America's Most Wanted," the show was dismissed by most mainstream television journalists as being too tabloid.

As it turned out, he said, the series wound up helping people in a much more intimate and lasting way than network news: When the show led to the capture of a fugitive, it not only took a sometimes violent criminal off the streets, it gave relief to the suspect's victims.

"We all thought we were pretty hot stuff at CBS, but I gotta tell you that, until I came over here, I never realized what it was like changing the world for people," Heflin said. "Just by doing something as simple as bringing a fugitive back into the system, there's something psychological for these people. It's incredibly powerful. They can go on with their lives again."

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