Horror show: The nightmare of making tabloid TV

You think waking up to find a neatly arranged pile of rocks just outside your tent is bad? I've interviewed Joey Buttafuoco -- now that's scary!


Caroline Sommers
September 18, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Seen it? I've lived it. As I watched the summer's surprise mega-hit, "The Blair Witch Project," I thought I'd drown in the flood of memories. Having spent the last dozen years making documentary television, it's safe to say I've been in "Blair Witch"-type situations countless times. Did I really need to watch an amateur documentary film crew whine, fight, scream, beg, freak out and shoot dizzying tape for 87 minutes? Hadn't I had enough of that in real life?

Although the film did manage to capture the emotional coaster ride that is working in film and television, compared to the real thing, those kids had it easy. I've interviewed Joey Buttafuoco! Now that's scary!

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Like Heather Donahue and her trusty crew pursuing their elusive witch, I ran around Long Island chasing the overfed, oversexed auto mechanic and his wife -- as they craftily avoided me. (They were under contract to "A Current Affair," and my show, the competition, was considered the enemy.) The story led me to a gym, where I wore a hidden microphone to try to interview a grotesquely muscular guy who'd supposedly been involved with Amy and then dumped her. As soon as the guy "made me" (i.e. discovered that I was a reporter wearing a microphone with a camera crew filming me from the street), he summoned a bunch of other weight lifters to physically shove me out the door, kick me in the behind as I ran away and push my cameraman to the ground. To risk your life for a tabloid TV show is to know the true meaning of terror and shame. If it taught me anything, it's that a pile of rocks outside your tent is nowhere near as scary as a bunch of guys who are dumber than a pile of rocks.

Elusive and reluctant subjects can inflict a great deal of pain, but the havoc wreaked by miscommunication between crew members can't be underestimated. I was in Mexia, Texas, interviewing the hometown ex-boyfriend of model Anna Nicole Smith for a syndicated tabloid show. My mission was to cajole this young man into telling me -- on camera, of course -- that Anna Nicole Smith had surgically enhanced her breasts. "I'm not gonna tell you if she had a boob job or not," he drawled, "unless you shut off that camera." I turned my head and told the cameraman to cut, and then secretly, over-dramatically lip-synched to him: "Keep it rolling." (In tabloid TV, anything goes; if you don't come home with the story, as they say, don't bother coming home.) The boyfriend proceeded to go into agonizing detail about the procedure, in spite of having been sternly warned by Smith to keep it a secret.

In the crew van after the interview, proud of my coup, I asked the cameraman to cue up the great moment for me. "What do you mean?" he asked. "You told me to cut." "Are you kidding me?" I shouted in disbelief. "I lip-synched to you after I told you to stop rolling, to keep it rolling! You mean you really cut? Are you out of your mind?" The cameraman, a pot-bellied TV veteran, felt stupid. There we were, in the hot, mid-summer Mexia sun, having our very own "Blair Witch" moment. Afterwards, I felt guilty for making him feel stupid, angry at myself for engaging in sleazy tabloid practices, and sick -- because I was surely going to lose my job. (I didn't.)

Infighting, also a problem. I was producing a story about how, in the liberal climate of Denmark, fathers supply their 12-year-old boys with condoms in case they get lucky, and seventh-grade teachers take their classes on field trips to the Sex Museum. Ordinarily, this would be a pretty fun piece to produce. But the "talent," an on-camera reporter whose right-wing attitudes were what my crew and I called "a major buzzkill," didn't agree.

For one segment, we went on a location scout for Christiania -- a hippie commune where Danes walk around barefoot, filthy and stoned -- without a camera. I felt that these would be powerful images for our story, but the talent didn't see it that way. After half an hour, we found ourselves back at the van. "I think it's pretty cool," I told him. "You have these hippies smoking hash right in front of their kids. People selling dope and not even trying to hide it. If you're looking to shock people in Peoria, I don't think we can do much better." Morally offended by everything he'd seen, he refused to consider it. "Never gonna sell," he said. "It's a waste of time."

"What do you mean, it's not gonna sell?" I asked, stupefied. His reply: "These people are filthy. They're disgusting."

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The discussion escalated into an argument of "Blair Witch" proportions, and I ended up in tears -- just as Heather Donahue did when her sound man threw out the map that was their only hope to get out of the woods. And it was no longer only about the hippie commune, either. "How can you call me your producer if you don't even let me make any decisions?" I wailed to the talent. "You don't respect me!" The cameraman and sound man quietly slinked away. It got uglier. Eventually, he gave me permission to get my pictures, but upon my return to the van, I sulked and gave him the silent treatment -- a real joy for the rest of the crew.

As for physical danger -- remember how nervous the "Blair Witch" producer and her crew were when they had to walk across a log to get from one side of a brook to the other? In my day, we snacked on that sort of drill. I camped in the woods with an entire battalion of New York State Air National Guardsmen! I chartered a boat the morning after the crash of TWA Flight 800 and made it all the way to point of impact in East Moriches! I've been thrown in the back of police cruisers in small Florida towns! I've been on the Howard Stern show without having to show my breasts! I've been in more prisons than John Gotti! I've interviewed Joey Buttafuoco, dammit! As for that last, gruesome scene, well, I have to admit, I've never been killed on camera, but that's just about the only thing I can't top from "The Blair Witch Project." Everything else in those 87 minutes? Been there, done that.

There was another incident in Texas in which I was taken apart by my managing editor for asking the show's lawyers whether I could ambush a judge at his home. It wasn't slaughter, but it was close. The judge had refused an interview in his chambers, so I tried -- and failed -- to stake him out by waiting near his parking spot. I really needed this interview, and the only way I figured I could get it was to go to the general store in town, say I was a long-lost niece and secure the judge's address. Good sleuthing, I thought. I was proud of myself. But once I had the information, I thought it would be a good idea to make sure I wouldn't get thrown in jail for showing up at his doorstep with a camera crew. I spoke to the lawyers, and 10 minutes later, was beeped by the managing editor. I should have known, I was told, that my allegiance was to the editorial team back in New York -- not to the lawyers with whom they butt heads all day long. In that one phone call, I lost all face. My tabloid reputation was shot. I would have to go into something respectable now -- something where guts of steel were not required -- something like "20/20," or "Dateline."

Tame as the movie seemed to me, there is one thing I regret about the "Blair Witch" documentarians' demise -- its timing. They never had a chance to get around to the sex! Inter-office romances are a dime a dozen in the incestuous world of tabloid television -- so imagine the possibilities for the Blair Witchies! Someone was bound to wind up having sex with someone within a day or two, had they lived. Hey, you're stuck out there in the woods, spending virtually every moment with your colleagues. What do you think would happen next?

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Caroline Sommers

Caroline Sommers is a television producer who has covered stories for "Inside Edition," "Extra," A&E, CBS and Court TV. She lives in New York.

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