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Two Decades After Being 'Scared Straight'

UPN will show the original program and an update on teens and prisoners featured in 1978 documentary.

April 15, 1999|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the entertainment industry, one great idea can still pay dividends two decades later. Just ask George Lucas--or Arnold Shapiro.

Though his creation is by no means as lucrative as "Stars Wars" has been for Lucas, Shapiro also finds himself inexorably linked to a specific property. In this case, it's "Scared Straight!," the 1978 documentary about Rahway prison's "Lifers" program, in which convicts confront juvenile offenders seeking to dissuade them--using brutally frank language about the horrors and indignities of prison--from continuing along that path.

Even Shapiro is surprised that this particular concept, which earned both an Oscar and multiple Emmy awards during its initial run, keeps on giving. His latest follow-up, "Scared Straight! 20 Years Later," hosted by Danny Glover, will be broadcast on the UPN network today. In addition, Shapiro recently taped a new "Scared Straight!" to be shown in July on MTV, which didn't exist when the original special aired.

Despite his association with numerous TV projects, among them the long-running CBS series "Rescue 911" and the child-abuse special "Scared Silent," the producer admits "Scared Straight!" has proved hard to shake.

"If my tombstone had credits on it, it would probably be 'Scared Straight!' over anything else," said Shapiro, 58, who jokes that he is "the oldest person MTV ever called" about producing a show.

For "20 Years Later," UPN will televise the original "Scared Straight!" followed by an update for which Shapiro tracked down the teenagers (most now in their mid-30s) and prisoners to see if the kids did in fact become law-abiding citizens and which convicts remain in jail.

Shapiro previously produced a 10-year sequel but felt unsatisfied with that effort, having been able to contact only half the kids and some of the convicts.

"After 10 years, I said I was putting 'Scared Straight!' to bed," he noted.

Shapiro decided to do the current wrap-up--which he calls "the final chapter"--after friends pointed out an entire generation exists that never heard of "Scared Straight!" Moreover, few filmmakers have had the opportunity to follow a group of people through their lives in this fashion, with Shapiro citing "Seven Up"--director Michael Apted's documentary chronicling the maturation of British children in seven-year intervals--as a similar example.

Determined not to repeat his disappointment of a decade ago, Shapiro engaged in three months of research, hiring a private detective to find everyone depicted in the original film. Had he known in 1978 that the project would live on, Shapiro said, "I would have gotten Social Security numbers, which would have made these people easier to find. . . . You ought to see the release form this time [with the new version]. If I'm still alive and well, and MTV wants to do a five-year follow-up, we'll have a shot."

Shapiro learned about the Rahway program in a Reader's Digest article. He took the idea to the general manager of KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, Tony Cassara, who now oversees the Paramount Stations Group, a significant component of UPN.

At the time, KTLA was owned by Gene Autry, who wasn't exactly known for pushing boundaries of taste. Cassara remembers screening the finished documentary for Autry, who sat in utter silence throughout as the four-letter words flew.

"When it was over, he spun around in his chair, looked right at me and said, 'You want to put this on my television station?' " Cassara recalled, saying he sensed others in the room slowly inching away from him before Autry said, " 'Well, damn it, I agree with you.' I didn't have to sell it to him: He got it, and he made a decision right on the spot."

"Scared Straight!" was a huge hit for KTLA, prompting a brief theatrical run and nationwide exposure a few months later. When the program aired again on KTLA, Shapiro remembers the general manager of Channel 9, then KHJ-TV, in an on-air editorial telling viewers they should watch the rival station that night.

Cassara felt so strongly and so proprietary about the project that Paramount stations footed the bill for the sequel, giving the program to the network free. The stations and UPN are also investing $50,000 in a community outreach program that urges schoolchildren to watch the show and teachers to raise it as a discussion topic the next day.

"I didn't want it to be anywhere but on the Paramount stations," Cassara said. "I'm very proud to put this on the air."

The media landscape has changed since "Scared Straight!" made its debut, with rough language regularly found on pay-cable channels and markedly relaxed standards on broadcast outlets.

"I think the shock value 20 years ago was much higher," Cassara said, adding that the program's content still causes some anxiety among national advertisers, making it easier to find sponsors at the local level.

Still, Shapiro believes that the material hasn't lost the power to shock, conveying a strong anti-drug, anti-drinking message in the process. Indeed, the producer said his modest hope 20 years ago was that the documentary would inspire other prisons to emulate the Lifers program, but the influence of "Scared Straight!" far surpassed his imagination.

"The film itself has been a deterrent, and I never thought that was going to happen," he said. "I think the lessons are there, if parents will let their kids watch and watch with them."

* "Scared Straight! 20 Years Later" will be broadcast tonight at 8 p.m. on UPN. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14) with advisories for language and dialogue.

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