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Visionaries, for better or worse

The crew of 'Eye on L.A.,' a precursor to today's 'reality' genre, bares its inner secrets.

November 03, 2002|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

Before the networks showcased Victoria's Secret lingerie models in prime time, there was the "3-D Hawaiian Swimsuit Spectacular." Before "Temptation Island," there were explorations of bare flesh and nude beaches and bigamy. Before Anna Nicole Smith preened for TV cameras, there were segments featuring poster girl Angelyne -- all available six nights a week, on "Eye on L.A."

Reeling in viewers with an intoxicating mix of sex, titillation, adventure and gaudy promotion (and did we mention sex?), the local magazine-style show filled the half-hour leading into prime time on KABC-TV through the 1980s -- thriving in the days when TV stations still cranked out local shows, before those time periods became home to nationally syndicated programs like "Wheel of Fortune" and "Oprah."

Yet while "Eye" was shut more than a decade ago (KABC still uses the title on a more subdued half-hour program airing Saturdays), the show was the incubator for a generation of producers who have taken tricks they learned there and now ply them on a national stage.

"Almost every 'reality' show on the air, we did some version of on 'Eye on L.A.,' " said alumnus Jeff Androsky, whose producing credits include Fox's recent "Celebrity Daredevils" special and that network's live stunt shows featuring motorcyclist Robbie Knievel.

In fact, the ratings-driven hucksterism the show shamelessly trafficked in years ago has permeated today's airwaves -- with desperate times, or at least an increasingly crowded TV environment, demanding desperate measures.

"At KABC, you could get away with virtually anything, because it was the most rating-conscious place you would ever be in your life," said fellow "Eye" graduate Mack Anderson, producer of the long-running Comedy Central series "BattleBots." "If you want to get to the broader issues of what's happening in reality television, the same thing is happening now -- the fact that there is intense ratings pressure, and suddenly networks are saying, 'Just do something, as long as it works.' "

In that sense, "Eye" is gone but hardly forgotten. The show's progeny now produce a wide array of today's unscripted series, including E!'s "The Anna Nicole Show" and "The E! True Hollywood Story," NBC's "Meet My Folks" and a lengthy roster of Fox fare such as "American Idol," "America's Most Wanted," "Boot Camp" and "Looking for Love: Bachelorettes in Alaska."

What better way, then, to chart the rise (or, depending on one's viewpoint, spread) of unscripted programming than to dig into its roots, with half a dozen of "Eye's" senior producers -- Anderson, Androsky, Don Cambou, Michael J. Miller, Erik Nelson and Eric Schotz -- acting as tour guides and archeologists?

These producers, along with their fellow alumni, have become some of the most prolific dabblers in the so-called reality genre. Most are competitors now, vying for precious time periods on the networks that buy such programs, and like the bosses in "The Godfather," they pressed for the meeting to take place on neutral turf.

After a bit of haggling, they agreed to gather at the old KABC lot on Prospect Avenue in Los Angeles where they assembled the show in the '80s. KABC has relocated, and the bungalow "Eye on L.A." called home has been reduced to a dirt pile.

As metaphors go, the bungalow's fate is a pretty good one for what happened to local television shows after the 1980s, as stations slashed in-house production. According to the producers, however, "Eye" lives on.

"You can find pieces of it everywhere," said Schotz, whose company has been responsible for "Boot Camp," "Bachelorettes in Alaska," "Guinness World Records: Prime Time," as well as "Behind Closed Doors With Joan Lunden." "When we were on, MTV was just starting. We were doing music videos before MTV went on the air."

Relegated to a sterile conference room a short distance from where the "Eye" offices stood, the session turns out to be part class reunion, part one-upmanship by seasoned salesmen -- a free-flowing discussion of the current state of their art, peppered liberally with obscure references to incidents only they remember and former colleagues whose mere mention elicits laughs or knowing grins.

The tone is nostalgic but far from maudlin. These are men, after all, who frequently earn their living by capturing life's oddities, whether through hidden cameras or by persuading people to put themselves in bizarre situations for the entertainment of a vast audience at home. For apprehensive networks, they offer the promise of eye-catching fare that won't cost an arm and a leg -- good food at reasonable prices.

The old days were easier, they agree -- the TV environment less stressful and uncertain, and more fun. People made money even in failure, and stations invested in local production -- providing a training ground for these producers as well as a bond with the community that dissipated as nationally produced and syndicated fare supplanted it.

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