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Drama in Real Life

Tad Kruse has a problem. The police have busted the people at the house where he deals drugs, and fellow addicts are set to squeal about Tad's involvement. Then the cops pick Tad up with a brown paper bag full of money, some of it marked from police-instigated buys. Tad confesses about his half-gram, three-times-a-day heroin habit. And even his three boys, ages 3, 9 and 11, tell police they know about the syringes, money and guns their dad has. Caught red-handed and staring straight at the camera as he's read his rights, Tad wails to the cops as they handcuff him in front of his sons, "My kids are freaking out!"

Strong stuff. But this isn't a police drama out of the personal computer of a script writer. This is real-life material from ABC's American Detective, a slick and riveting new show that represents the latest twist in TV reality programing.

Packaging human misfortune _ ranging from a domestic dispute to a rough-and-tumble drug bust _ is a hot home entertainment trend on television. And it's heating up even more, as evidenced by the recently announced fall schedules.

Currently, there are seven such shows on the air, with one slated to be dropped this summer. But a new one will be added in September.

The crime/reality TV lineup includes:

Rescue 911, (CBS) Tuesdays, 8 p.m. WTVT-Ch. 13, covers real-life telephone calls for help to 911, with actual scenes of police, paramedics, firefighters and other emergency specialists rushing to the scene of life-and-death situations. Both the rescuers and victims retell what happened, with re-creations sometimes used as well. Hosted by Star Trek's classic hero Capt. James T. Kirk, actor William Shatner.

Unsolved Mysteries, (NBC) Wednesdays, 8 p.m. WFLA-Ch. 8, encourages viewers to call an 800 number if they can help solve a baffling case. Recreations (actors portraying events) range from lost loves to foul play. Host is Robert Stack, whom most know as the Prohibition-era super cop Eliot Ness on The Untouchables.

American Detective, (ABC) Wednesdays, 10 p.m. WTSP-Ch. 10 and WWSB-Ch. 40, highlights different detectives, but the most famous to date is Lt. John Bunnell of Portland, Ore., who has the handsome looks of a TV star, with a tough but compassionate style. There's a camera crew riding along with real detectives, capturing not only the men and women on the job, but bits and pieces of their personal lives. When Tad was nailed, a boom mike was clearly visible next to his car. And Lt. Bunnell was shown on numerous occasions calling his wife, Candy, and telling her he wouldn't be home for a while. "10 o'clock," an unhappy Candy cries. "That late?"

Top Cops, (CBS) Thursdays, 8 p.m. WTVT-Ch. 13, retells the stories of police officers who have been involved in dramatic situations, and lived (although they usually have been injured) to tell about it. Told in first person with the real-life cop as narrator, the series is filmed in Toronto using actors to portray the cop who's featured.

America's Most Wanted, (Fox) Friday, 8 p.m. WFTS-Ch. 28, hunts criminals on the FBI's most wanted list (the show claims more than 150 captures). It's a video version of the old post office poster with crimes re-enacted, as well as victims (or their families and friends) and police filling in what happened. Viewers are then asked to call an 800 number if they have any information. Host is John Walsh, a well-known advocate for missing children since his own son, Adam, was abducted and murdered in 1981.

DEA, (Fox) Friday, 9 p.m. WFTS-Ch. 28, uses a cinema-verite format (looks like real life) to tell stories about the Drug Enforcement Administration. Five agents are portrayed by actors, but it's difficult to decipher that it isn't real; it's a drama. But apparently, viewers want the real real thing, because DEA goes off the air this summer, a victim of its own low ratings.

Cops, (Fox) Saturdays, 9 p.m. WFTS-Ch. 28, visits various cities to tag along with police on the job. (A rerun of Cops in Tampa airs Saturday at 9:30 p.m. on Channel 28.) The program boasts, "No scripts, no actors, no phony endings _ just cops."

And coming this fall:

FBI: The Untold Stories, (ABC) Thursdays 9 p.m. WTSP-Ch. 10 and WWSB-Ch. 40 will have some dramatic recreations, as the bureau opens up its files of actual cases.

Cheap way to entertain

So why the glut of reality programing? Squeezed by soaring production costs and smaller and smaller advertising profits, the four networks are reaching for relief. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox have apparently found it in low-budget, high-profit series featuring real-life.

Arnold Shapiro, executive producer of Rescue 911, confirms that his cut-rate series is about one-third less expensive to produce than an hour of TV drama.

While the reality crimefighter and rescue worker shows vary greatly in content, most play by the same rules. Paul Stojanovich, executive producer of American Detective, explains that the people seen on his show sign release forms. Those who don't, including an occasional police informant who doesn't want to give away his identity, will have their faces blurred for the camera.

Money doesn't change hands to secure appearances, but Stojanovich emphasizes that "stringent guidelines" must be followed by his crew. As to why anyone charged with a crime would agree to sign a release, Stojanovich says he senses many times that a person wants to turn things around, and so will agree to let the footage of an arrest be used, no matter how humiliating.

Lance Heflin, executive producer of America's Most Wanted, says his show has never done a segment when the family of the victim didn't cooperate. "We've never been sued," he states proudly, "because we draw from the facts." Heflin does hire actors to recreate the wrongdoing, but his crew travels to the actual scene of the crime. "So that's why the fugitive is sometimes caught before we go on the air. We're visiting small-town America to film, and the word spreads fast."

As for the nuts and bolts, Stojanovich says that his American Detective crew shoots 30 times more footage than is used. "The reason we do that is for the moments for them (the cops) to feel thoroughly relaxed and open, not only about what they're doing, their day-to-day investigations, but how they respond to it in a conversational way _ in order to get those natural moments, those frustrations, cynicism, elation over what they may be working on, we spend a great deal of time."

The TV of the future

The reality genre began, oddly enough, on PBS, with the 1973 series An American Family. At the time, this look at the problem-plagued Loud family was called a documentary. But the raw emotional footage was more. It was eavesdropping on real life and it appealed to the video voyeur instincts in all who watched.

Now look at what's happening to the booming genre. In the Feb. 25 issue of Newsweek, an article titled Whose Real Life Is This, Anyway? warned after listing all the reality-based crime shows on the air and those about to premiere ... "you're looking at a trend that just may swallow television."

Of course, all four networks still have a number of new fictional police and courtroom dramas slated for fall, but it looks as if the real-life cops and robbers may be the way of the future. It's easy to explain why Americans are interested in such programing. A recent FBI report stated violent crime in the United States had increased for the sixth year in a row, with a 10 percent increase in 1990.

As a result, many TV watchers want to spend their leisure time viewing real police in real situations; there's an apparent attraction in seeing other people's troubles with the law, something that shows like Hunter and MacGyver can't tap into with their scripts safely constructed in Hollywood.

Robert Snyder, who teaches popular culture at the University of South Florida in Tampa, believes reality police shows are just a clone of the video craze and will go away eventually. "Seeing what's real is appealing right now (he cites the success of America's Funniest Home Videos), but it's somewhat cyclical."

Talk with producers of these shows and they predictably tout the public service aspect of what they're doing as the reason for the present proliferation.

"Our show does something," says Heflin of America's Most Wanted. "It serves a purpose. There's a sense of justice. People are interested in the cases and need to know that the system does work."

Top Cops executive producer Sonny Grosso, an ex-narcotics cop himself, says that people tune in because his show deals with the aftermath of violence. This is a subject seldom explored on make-believe cop shows. Grosso explains, "We're treating the violence that this country is made up of, with a truth and with an honesty. We give people the idea that the romance and all the invincibility (of the police) does not exist."

Shapiro of Rescue 911 thinks that the heroic aspect of the realism is the hook, even though his show uses recreations. "We are focusing on positive, life-saving things that are being done not only by professionals, but by civilians."

Shapiro's Rescue 911 taped the actual infamous distress call of Boston's Charles Stuart, who murdered his pregnant wife. He adds proudly that his show has had an impact on inspiring people to go into emergency medicine: "I know that episodes of our show are used for training purposes by 911 centers all over the country, because we get letters telling us that."

Hitting close to home

Educational value aside, ethical questions remain about the shows' exploitation element.

American Detective's Stojanovich admits he can't entirely defend his use of the three little boys from the segment about their drug-dealing dad. But because Tad agreed to the telecasting of his arrest, Stojanovich felt he had the legal go-ahead to tell the full story _ of how a parent's crime tragically affects the family.

America's Most Wanted has toned itself down in content. At the end of its third season on the air, Heflin says, "We now cut short of doing the scene of violence. But people swear we still show it, which only proves that the audience uses its imagination when it comes to terror. We don't have to rub noses in it."

Heflin adds, however, that reality cop shows continue to walk a fine line. "We don't want people running and shrieking from the room. Yet, those who work in law enforcement will criticize that we're too mild in depicting the horrors of violent crime."

There's no disputing that reality-based shows have gotten better as the genre has matured. Heflin says the production value is the top way America's Most Wanted has improved. "We're also better reported," says Heflin, who worked at CBS news for seven years.

American Detective, with a theme song performed by rock 'n' roll's Southside Johnny, is the most powerful of them all. One scene has Lt. Bunnell visiting a jewelry store to gleefully buy his wife a gold ring for their 25th anniversary. Next, the camera pans the pain on his face as the sons of his "primary" (chief suspect) spot the detective sitting in front of their house, staking out Tad, their father.

Sometimes there's real-life humor as well. On the Tampa segment of Cops, a police officer is amazed that a husband is able to talk his estranged wife into going out to dinner with him by promising her shrimp and cigarettes. He'll have to remember that, concludes the Tampa cop, next time he's called to a domestic squabble. "Send them off to Red Lobster with a coupon," the police officer muses as if he's Lt. Columbo doing deadpan.

Material similar to a well-crafted police drama, only it's real.