"It sort of functioned like a 1950s exploitive studio, where they would come up with the poster first, and then Roger Corman would crank out the movie second," said Nelson, the producer of such hidden-camera shows as UPN's "Redhanded" and MTV's "Celebrity Undercover," along with the specials "World's Most Dangerous Animals" and "When Chefs Attack." "The show taught you to think in log lines and full-page ads, which isn't a bad skill to take into the hurly-burly of television."
Added Anderson: "It was one of the loudest TV shows that has ever been produced -- by loud, I mean from a promotional point of view, from a catch-your-attention point of view.... Frankly, now, whenever you go in to pitch a show, you really do have to convince whoever the buyer is that what you're going to do is going to have an impact, and the way to make an impact in a really crowded television market is by being loud."
How loud? A production log from 1984 reveals such topics as "Nude Art Models," "Stripper Convention," "Voodoo" and "Bigamy" -- and that's just during a two-week stretch in the February rating sweeps.
"This show was about creating events," Schotz said. "That is the one thing that I took away when you walk in and try to sell something to a network. Whether it was doing 'Nude Beaches of the World' or '3-D Swimsuits' or 'Around the World in Eight Days,' we were able to sit there and say, 'How do you sell this as an event?' '... You'd walk away and figure out how to take something simple and blow it up and make it huge."
Given that contestants on some of today's unscripted programs sign 50-page waivers, "Eye on L.A." also operated with remarkable freedom, seldom worrying about the legal clearances corporate attorneys presently demand.
"Clearances? Yeah, right. Like we were going to [legally] clear somebody," Schotz said. "It didn't have all the weight that you have today."
"One of the things we learned at 'Eye on L.A.,' which is an important component in creating modern reality television, is that ordinary people will do anything to be on television," Nelson said.
Local shows fade from view
ANOTHER modern shift is that few TV stations devote significant resources to local production anymore; instead, media conglomerates own ever larger station groups, buying programs that play across the country.
"There's no local television anymore," Miller said. "There was a 25-year era of local TV, where stations believed they needed to have local programming to serve the public, and it ended pretty much when this show ended. Now they just put on 'Wheel of Fortune' reruns, and one fat guy downstairs pushes a 'start' button on a tape machine."
At its peak, "Eye on L.A." produced 130 to 140 episodes a year, running six nights a week. Miller contrasted that with today, when networks order six episodes of a new series and producers always feel as if they're on the verge of being canceled. "Because of that, we could afford to take enormous risks," he said.
Although the show was extremely popular, its death warrant was essentially signed in 1986, when buttoned-up Capital Cities acquired ABC. At the time, KABC produced an original magazine show in the afternoon ("330"), three hours of local news, "Eye on L.A.," "Hollywood Close-Up" and "Eye on Hollywood" -- essentially a repackaged version of "Eye on L.A." segments that ran late at night on the network.
Gradually, those programs began to disappear. "Eye" was outsourced and eventually replaced by syndicated programming. "When Capital Cities took over, there were 135 employees here in the local programming department," Anderson recalled. "Within a year, there were six. Literally, they didn't want people on the payroll."
"Now the whole country has turned into one major television market," Nelson said.
"It's like AM radio," Miller added. "It used to be every city had their own station and personality. Now you can drive coast to coast and it's the same show."
Today, economic forces combined with the appetite for something new to stand apart from the crowd has led to alternative programs occupying large swaths of prime-time real estate. Still, the producers agree that the TV business was easier back in their formative years -- or at least, it seems that way in hindsight.
"When I was at 'Eye on L.A.,' I naively thought talent was easy, and I think it was because everyone around me was talented," Cambou said. "Now that I have to find talent, it's hard. There's not that much of it out there."
"Especially not for this kind of stuff, where you have to really get it at some level and have no shame," Nelson said.
There is a consensus among them, too, that there was something refreshingly unpretentious about KABC in those years -- a station that didn't aspire to high art or spend much time defending its excesses.