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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

Indeed, the idea that a locally produced show dominated the early-evening ratings might be hard to fathom for those who don't remember the days before Alex Trebek met "Jeopardy!," but such local programming was common. In fact, "Eye on L.A." competed head to head with "2 on the Town," a more stately magazine on KCBS-TV, and the competition was fierce.

During rating sweeps, the gloves -- and often other clothing -- came off, with segments like "Nude Beaches of the World" (creatively shot to obscure vital areas) and the "3-D Swimsuit Spectacular," with viewers picking up the necessary glasses at 7-Eleven stores.

If the actual effect was iffy, viewership soared. KCBS countered with an in-depth report about the Philippines; few people watched. "2 on the Town" executive producer Michael Meadows said at the time, "We tried to do a meaningful show, and we got crushed by bodies."

Keeping it real

THE subsequent success of the show's alumni -- and the anything-goes nature of TV's "reality" -- suggests that the lessons were taken to heart. In addition to the six participants, a partial list includes Teya Ryan, general manager of CNN, as well as producers Brian Gadinsky ("American Idol"), Jeff Shore ("Anna Nicole"), Michael Linder ("America's Most Wanted"), and Rob Kirk and Rob Lihani, partners in the multimedia production company Digital Ranch.

Other "Eye" graduates are writer-producer Bryce Zabel, chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences; Paul Hall, producer of the recent feature "Shaft"; and commercial director David Kellogg, who also directed the movie "Inspector Gadget." As for on-air talent, the show drew liberally from KABC's newsroom, including Paul Moyer, Chuck Henry and Jann Carl.

At the time, almost all of the "Eye" staff was young and willing to work insane hours. "It was not unusual to work 24 or 36 hours straight, and then we would brag about it in some misguided, macho way," said Anderson, a soft-spoken fellow who dryly notes that he always knew their would be an audience for fighting robots -- the conceit behind "BattleBots" -- in the 21st century.

The producers describe "Eye" as a graduate school, but it also operated as a sort-of fraternity. Schotz, for example, recalls having staff call "2 on the Town" anonymously trying to ferret out its sweeps scheduling and sending flowers to the executive who oversaw the show with a birthday wish from her boss, even though it wasn't her birthday.

" 'Eye on L.A.' was like a laboratory, and for a while, the inmates were allowed to run the asylum," said Cambou, who the past five years has headed Hearst Corp.'s Actuality production unit, supervising installments of "Biography," "Intimate Portraits" and "Modern Marvels," among others.

Beyond the battle with "2 on the Town," producers competed among themselves for "plums" -- from the most exotic trips to the best office and parking spot. Marathon production schedules made working on the show resemble a medical internship, as pieces were frequently completed hours before they went on the air.

"We were all 25 and worked to the edge of what we could do," said Miller, who speaks in clipped bursts and still seems to possess a vast reservoir of energy, having worked with producer Bruce Nash on NBC's "Meet My Folks" and "World's Most Amazing Videos," along with a host of specials.

"It was like being in a MASH unit in Korea," he mused. "It really was. I didn't go to graduate school, but this was it."

Most of the producers were new to Los Angeles. For some, it was their first job in television. Androsky was working in Louisville, Ky., when he came out hoping to join the staff. "They sent me to do a story on the Raiderettes. I spent four days planning it. That day, I was told, 'Forget the Raiderettes. There's a stripper convention in Las Vegas. You're leaving in an hour.' I shot it that night, was back the next day, edited it, and as I was leaving they said, 'Hey, you want the job?' "

As with many of the "reality" or alternative programs that followed, critics routinely pummeled the show -- dismissing its emphasis on beaches and bikinis as "Eye on T&A." KABC officials brushed them off, saying those initials must stand for "travel and adventure."

The show's promotion matched the cheekiness of its content. Ghosts conveniently turned up at L.A.'s purported haunted spots -- but only during sweeps and only if you watched the segments. An episode in which Liberace gave viewers a tour of his clothing collection was billed as "Inside Liberace's Closet -- Tonight at 7:30!" "Everybody watched it, and it was about dry cleaning!" said Miller.

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