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NBC's controversial reality show is a rating sensation

NBC’s controversial reality show is a rating sensation — Critics revile it, the producers defend it; is ”I Witness Video” simply misunderstood?

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Here are a few of the images in the opening sequence of NBC’s Sunday reality hour I Witness Video: Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald. Rescuers carry a bloodied Baby Jessica. A drowning man floats downstream. A plane crashes, causing a fiery explosion. A pregnant woman jumps out of a burning building.

And here are some of the phrases TV critics have used to describe the show: ”ghoulish, cheap and chillingly exploitative”; a ”sick exercise in TV voyeurism”; ”the season’s worst show of any sort”; and ”a symbol of everything that’s wrong with television.”

The critics can protest until they’re blue in the face, but viewers don’t seem to share their contempt for the show’s packaging of real-life violence as infotainment. Born as a series of specials last season and launched as a regular show last fall, I Witness counts the coveted 18 to 49 age group as its core audience. One recent episode hit No. 12 in viewership of all ages for the week, right behind Seinfeld.

Despite the sensationalist footage stressed in the opening, the show presents itself as a survey of the video universe, cushioning the natural disasters, riots, and other catastrophes with homemade tapes of wacky weddings and adorable infants. ”This is not a murder-a-week show,” argues Patrick VanHorn, a former local-news reporter and cameraman (based most recently in San Francisco), who is I Witness‘ host and writer. ”In our season so far, we’ve produced about 83 stories, and probably only 17 are what you would consider violent. The others are about people who have used their camcorders in fairly extraordinary ways.”

Executive producer Terry A. Landau has a theory about why the critics aren’t buying the I Witness concept. ”I don’t think the media is watching the show,” he says. ”There’s one bit of tape they always point to from the first show (of the pregnant woman jumping out of a building). That’s about 24 shows ago.”

On top of all this, the makers of I Witness claim to have history on their side. ”Are we less of a society because thousands and thousands of people in movie theaters across the country witnessed the Hindenburg disaster of 1937 in newsreels?” VanHorn asks. ”Are we less of a society because many people have seen the Zapruder film of JFK being shot?”

Still, the show has softened its approach a bit in response to the media attacks. VanHorn points to an instance in which lurid aerial footage from a 1988 Denver car chase was trimmed for the second airing of the segment. ”The first time we did show — from very high up — a cop getting run over. That and a shoot-out at the end were changed.” VanHorn acknowledges the impact of outraged reviewers on the change. ”I think it was Nietzsche who said, ‘All criticism is valid,”’ he says.

Easy to cite when you’re a moneymaking success. Which I Witness is. Unlike many other reality shows, I Witness doesn’t stage expensive reenactments, although it does sweeten the footage with music and supplement it with follow-up interviews. The videos are obtained from a variety of sources — news organizations, surveillance units, camcorder owners — and about half of it comes in from callers to an 800 number flashed at the end of each episode. I Witness licenses the video for a nominal fee, usually $50 to $250. This low overhead makes the show cheap to produce, and thus profitable for money-hungry NBC.

Yet the series, which is produced by NBC News, is clearly a hot potato around the network. NBC executives, including West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer, acting news division president Don Browne, and Jeffrey Gaspin, the NBC News executive who developed I Witness, refused to discuss the show for this story. (They’re not alone. Even producers of the reality-based America’s Funniest Home Videos, Cops, Rescue 911, and Unsolved Mysteries were unwilling to comment on the series.)

Created as a cash cow for NBC News during the turbulent tenure of recently resigned division president Michael Gartner, I Witness may be moved to the network’s entertainment wing next season. Industry observers think this would be a good public relations move for NBC News in the wake of the Dateline NBC-General Motors scandal. ”The last thing NBC News wants now is a program that by its very nature is a bit of a freak show,” says Electronic Media editor David Klein. Robert Lichter of the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs says the show uses ”good footage, and nobody would be bemoaning it if they just didn’t call it news.”

The makers of I Witness Video are quick to point out that no decision has been made about the program’s future home within NBC. ”I’d like to stay under news,” VanHorn admits. ”But I’m a good soldier. I’ll go wherever the network wants me to go.”

Which is probably a much nicer place than where the critics want him to go.

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