How to sell a scandal -- Revealed! The big wheels and lucrative deals behind the insatiable machine that turns sleaze and crime into the stuff of primetime

By Dana Kennedy
Updated June 25, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

”It was more or less an audition. The money was on the table. We had a face-to-face, mano a mano meeting. Then the game changed dramatically. I was told ProServ [wanted] a package — meaning you’ve got to give us more than just a TV movie. It got very, very big. There was tremendous pressure on me to hit the ground running. It was on a very fast track, moving very quickly. By Feb. 4 I was monitoring the situation literally on an hourly basis. By mid-afternoon it came together and I felt like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone — I just sort of shrieked, ‘YES!”’ — Producer Steve Tisch, who beat out at least 40 other producers in February for the reported $1 million Nancy Kerrigan deal.

Like his peers, the savvy and well-connected Tisch, nephew of CBS president Laurence Tisch, is a seasoned competitor in the high-stakes race to cash in on true crime and tragedy and convert them to entertainment. Call it Scandal Inc. — a booming enterprise that is becoming the hottest growth industry in Hollywood. Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding are its latest stars, but its dark roots go back to the day Amy Fisher shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco, an event that so far has generated at least $10 million in revenues from books, TV movies, and tabloid shows. The days when a scandal — say, the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker contretemps — resulted in a mere TV movie and a smattering of books are over. The unholy trinity of Amy, Joey, and Mary Jo jump-started the marketing of scandal, turning it into a billion-dollar entertainment business that now extends from TV, movies, and books to exercise videos, commercial endorsements, Playboy pictorials, and clothing lines.

Take the deal Steve Tisch negotiated. Simply for being kneecapped, Nancy Kerrigan will be getting a two-hour ABC TV movie (she won’t star but will probably skate in it), a prime-time ABC special, appearances at Disney theme parks, an exercise video, and a children’s book that she’ll coauthor for Hyperion Books. And the skater’s deal is only the tip of the iceberg. The most jolting events (Erik and Lyle Menendez explaining why they blew their parents away, Lorena Bobbitt slicing off her husband’s penis) are not only reaping a bonanza of money, publicity, and instant stardom for the perps and victims but also giving rise to a support staff of specialists — lawyers, journalists, producers, and publicists who have mastered the scandal-merchandising game.

Simply put, when whacked on the knee last month, a more prescient Nancy Kerrigan might not have wailed, ”Why me?” Considering the windfall just around the corner, she might have echoed Steve Tisch and Macaulay Culkin and shrieked a resounding ”YES!

”It’s a feeding frenzy out there. I think the networks themselves will be paying for this soon because they must compete. It’s entertainment. There’s big dollars at stake. I know all the producers, all the talk shows, and all the tabloid shows. I can pick up the phone and broker deals. One attorney [for] a 17-year-old girl [who had been] propositioned by a well-known DA with a foot fetish calls me and says she’s been contacted by the tabloids. I said, ‘What are they offering you?’ And she said, ‘Five thousand dollars.’ I said, ‘It’s sweeps month. You’re going to do better.’ Twenty minutes later, I had the girl $20,000.” — Eric Naiburg, the Long Island lawyer who represented Amy Fisher