Joe Flint
January 08, 1999 AT 05:00 AM EST

Bruce Nash is one of TV’s most prolific producers, but you won’t see Emmys lining the shelves of his Hollywood office, and the Museum of Television & Radio isn’t exactly itching to honor him with a black-tie dinner. That’s because, unlike traditional industry titans such as David E. Kelley or Steven Bochco, Nash’s TV kingdom consists of lowbrow reality fare with titles like World’s Worst Drivers and the upcoming doozy Cheating Spouses: Caught on Tape.

Having cranked out more than 30 prime-time specials in less than five years — and with shows in the works for ABC, NBC, and Fox — Nash has become the master of what he calls ”nonfiction programming.” And while critics may look upon Nash and his ilk as vultures circling over the tube’s vast wasteland, you can’t deny that the guy’s an innovator who, for better or worse, is changing TV. His Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed specials broke Fox ratings records, and his recent When Good Pets Go Bad brought that network within a rabid cat’s whisker of unseating NBC in the 18-49 demos during the November sweeps.

”A lot of people say that this is schlockumentary programming,” says Nash. ”But it’s only schlock if you make it schlock. The challenge is to take the material and make it more than just pictures: Tell a story.” For Nash, that means packaging something like the World’s Scariest Police Shootouts so that it highlights the dangers of being a police officer rather than just reveling in the shock of seeing criminals blown away (a policy that has earned him an award from the William H. Parker Police Foundation).

To work his verite magic, Nash dispatches a staff of 20 (plus legions of freelancers) to negotiate with police departments, private detectives, prisons, local TV stations, and amateur auteurs in an effort to nab the eye-popping footage that makes his specials, well, special. For the upcoming The Road to Fame, for example, Nash’s team scoured the audition-tape vaults of every B-level Hollywood casting agent and hit pay dirt — unearthing footage of Tom Cruise and Heather Locklear reading lines together for the 1982-83 TV series The Powers of Matthew Star.

Of course, a star-studded tape like that doesn’t come cheap; it cost Nash $10,000. ”It’s a seller’s market and the prices keep going up,” says Nash, who now has to fend off network newsmagazines for such diamond-in-the-rough amateur footage. The Cruise-Locklear clip, he promises, is worth every penny. ”Something like that can make your show. [After] you see it in the promos, you just have to watch.”

Nash certainly doesn’t look like a guy who sits around trying to break magicians’ codes or expose pro wrestling’s greatest secrets. At 51, with an uncanny resemblance to Comedy Central’s Dr. Katz, the soft-spoken producer could be mistaken for a geeky bureaucrat. Actually, he was a bureaucrat, working as the director of planning and research at the North Carolina Department of Corrections. An obsession with TV Guide and small-screen lore led him to write a boob-tube trivia book at age 25. Eighty minutiae-filled books later, Nash found himself in Hollywood producing his first few specials, and when his 1994 ABC event Before They Were Stars beat then ratings champ Murder, She Wrote, he knew he had finally struck gold.

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