Wednesday, November 10, 1999

NY Press: Bad Boy TV

Nov 10-18, 1999
Page One
John Strausbaugh on Publishing

Burt Kearns came roaring into the 1990s with television's barbarians, introducing tabloid tv to America as a producer of A Curtrent Affair and later Hard Copy.  As the decade ends, neither of these shows remains on the air, and Kearns' latest project, which happens to air on Fox this Thursday night, is, he tells me, "a very highbrow specal" called When Good Pets Go Bad 2.

What happened?

“I’m sorry, man," he says. "I need the work."

But he says it with a laugh. This is not a sob story. Kearns has been up and down and up and down again over the past decade. He’s done O.J. and William Kennedy Smith, Son of Sam and Lobster Boy, Strange Universe and huge-titted strippers. He’s worked with Travolta and coproduced Kim Basinger’s recent HBO special on panic attacks. He did a lot of drugs and drinking, then turned 40 and settled down in Malibu with the blonde of his dreams, the pretty British newscaster Alison Holloway.

Along the way, he helped change forever the way the news gets told on tv. If you’re the typical media pundit, you’d call the change a devolution into vulgar tabloid stupidity. If you’re Kearns, it’s a democratic revolution, teaching television how to give the people the news they want instead of the news stuffed shirts like Mike Wallace and Jim Lehrer think they need.

In the end, he argues, television learned that lesson too well: When Dateline and Extra rule the weeknights and Barbara Walters conducts a serious interview with the girl who fellated the President, all tv news has become tabloid tv. "At the dawn of the 21st century," he claims with mock portentousness, "the networks have regained control of the mainstream, yet the course of the mighty river has shifted irrevocably–and many of those driving the network ships were trained in the tabloid television newsrooms."

Kearns is defiantly, happily unapologetic about that lowbrow, low-class effect he’s had on tv. That’s part of what makes his memoirs such an absorbing read. Tabloid Baby (Celebrity Books, 490 pages, $27.95) is a funny, brash,packed-with-anecdotes account of his role in the trashing (my usage) of tv news. If Kearns lays on the mythologizing a bit thick–his portraits of colleagues like Steve Dunleavy come straight out of 1930s hero-worship of the two-fisted, whiskey-pounding newspaper reporter–it’s probably just because he’s looking to sell HBO the movie rights, and why not. Besides, even his heroes show their warts, and portraits of powerful media figures like Barry Diller, Diane Dimond, Anthea Disney and Jeff Greenfield are boldly unattractive.

“There is a reason my book couldn’t get published in New York," he remarks ruefully (Celebrity is an independent publisher in Nashville). He claims he’s already had trouble scheduling author appearances on tv.

On the broad scale, Tabloid Baby is a simple and familiar tale about the Aussification of the news: that is, it’s about the enormous, and many would say enormously detrimental, impact Rupert Murdoch and his piratical Aussie crew have had on news, both in print and electronic, both here and in England, over the last decade. Kearns had come to Manhattan from Connecticut as a young newsman and spent the 1980s working for the Channel 5 and Channel 4 news organizations when Murdoch’s Fox Television decided to launch an American version of the popular Australian show A Current Affair. (Good Day New York was similarly a New York knockoff of an Aussie show, hence the name.)

In 1989, Kearns came over from the Channel 4 newsroom, which was, he says, still reeling from the aftershocks of parent NBC’s having been bought and gutted by "Neutron Jack" Welch’s GE. He felt instantly at home. The largely Australian team, which included Dunleavy and producer Peter Brennan, were basically running A Current Affair out of the bar across the street from Fox’s offices.They were loud, brash, boorish, vulgar, hard-drinking, fun-loving cowboys. Kearns loved it. He’d done a lot of moonlighting for CBS News in the 80s, and had formed a bad opinion of corporate television news. "There was something about CBS that didn’t smell right," he writes, "something cultish in the way the employees saw themselves upholding some sacred tradition, carrying out some grand mission to spread the CBS orthodoxy… They all just took things so seriously." While his colleagues at Channel 5 got up a dead pool on when Cardinal Cooke "would finally kick the bucket," at CBS he found "the newswriters sniffling and consoling each other over the imminent passing of brave Barney Clark, the artificial heart recipient. Sheesh."

He found no such piety at A Current Affair, where Brennan seriously told him his model for the show was not other news broadcasts but rather The Dick Van Dyke Show. He wanted Kearns to learn how to tell a news story the way you’d tell it to your friends at the bar: sex, scandal, jokes, celebrities, heartstrings. Brennan and the Aussies had their own take on American tastes, Kearns argues, and it was very, very different from what the Ted Koppels and Dan Rathers thought Americans wanted–and ought to want:

The ability to recognize the undercurrents of America beyond the Beltway and across the Hudson was key to A Current Affair’s success. The men behind the show were foreigners who had a far better understanding of the national psyche than the network newspeople who spent their careers in windowless newsrooms or trading notes in gang bang press briefings. These men were writers, trained in the cadet system of Australian newspapers, cynical veterans of the world’s most hardscrabble newspaper wars from Fleet Street to Hong Kong, men who had imagination and balls and little respect for the trenchcoat and hairspray conventions of American television news.

For them, news-telling wasn’t the privilege of the elite…

Maybe Kearns’ best anecdotal metaphor for the gulf between the network and tabloid news culturescomes from the O.J. trial. Tabloid tv crews (A Current Affair having by then spun off imitators like Hard Copy and Inside Edition and Now It Can Be Told) had staked out the courthouse entrance relentlessly, a daily grind, weeks on end, fighting like piranha for scraps of news, when one day this schmuck shows up, elbowing his way through the cameramen and reporters and setting up a ladder. He climbs this ladder and he’s up there, looking down on all the rest of them, when they recognize him: network media pundit-putz Jeff Greenfield. A risible confrontation ensues between the pompous Greenfield and a young cameraman, Joe Guidry (now an independent producer), who effectively shames Greenfield down off his high perch and out of the crowd entirely.

The larger point behind a story like that, Kearns says to me, is that network tv was not only late to the party, but never would have even covered the O.J. trial if tabloid tv hadn’t been there first and shown how popular that kind of coverage could be. He remembers being "the only one on the William Kennedy Smith story" for a solid week before the networks deigned to pay attention to it. By the late 90s, as Monicagate demonstrated, all that had changed.

On a more petty level, various other famous asses get satisfying comeuppances in Tabloid Baby. There was the time Gordon Elliott, another Aussie, followed Bryant Gumbel’s boat around the harbor, annoying him through a bullhorn just to get him to blow his studied cool on camera. Or the time Elliott hired a Gorbachev lookalike, posted him on the sidewalk outside Trump Tower and convinced Trump the Russian leader wanted to meet him. Trump "actually took the golden elevator down and walked out to the sidewalk with his aides for an official greeting… He was exposed as the self-important asshole he was."

As Kearns tells it, those kinds of wild-hair antics never really sat well with many of Fox’s executives, some of whom might very well be seeing Trump at a cocktail party or fundraiser the next day. An internal struggle to clean up A Current Affair’s act pitted Barry Diller and the "Velvet Mafia" in Hollywood against the New York-based, largely Aussie crew. The Aussies gradually lost out, and Kearns found himself moving to Hollywood to work for Paramount’s upstart competitor to A Current Affair, Hard Copy.

He tells some great Hollywood-sleaze stories, including a meeting with Bernie Brillstein, manager-producer and wheeler-dealer, whose clients included Garry Shandling and various Saturday Night Live types (they called him The Man Who Killed Belushi because he bankrolled the comedian’s final blowout). Brillstein was too vulgar even for Kearns. Minutes into their first meeting, he was talking about starlets he’d like to pork:

Brillstein was male bonding. I could picture him with Belushi, rhapsodizing about how he’d like to give that skinny Larraine Newman a shot in the ass. "I’ll tell you, all these Amy Fisher movies, you know who I’d love to fuck?" His assistant… nodded as if he’d heard it all before. "I’d love to fuck that Drew Barrymore. Oooh."

"E.T., yeah," I said, thinking, well, it took three years but we were in. This was Hollywood; a powerful fat man with a commanding view of the city, fantasizing about fucking a seventeen-year-old.

A Current Affair died in 1996; Hard Copy finally went down last spring. They were killed, Kearns argues, by their own success. The mainstream media took over the tabloid tv impulse, cleaned it up, softened it, turned it into Entertainment Tonight and 20/20 and Dateline. Meanwhile, one could also argue that "reality tv" came on even cruder, rougher, more in-your-face, and stole the low end out from under the Brennans and Kearnses–in effect, home-movie and disaster-video tv eliminated these guys as unnecessary middlemen between the raw product and its audience. So much tv became tabloid that the original tabloids got squeezed out.

By the end of Tabloid Baby, Kearns is getting along as an independent producer in L.A., still working largely lowbrow-sounding projects like Strange Universe, one of those series about "the paranormal." The old gang has scattered in many directions–Dunleavy becoming a caricature at the Post, Brennan striking gold again as producer of Judge Judy’s show, Gordon Elliott still flogging his doorknocker routine (now for the Food Network). Kearns believes they’ve had a lasting impact in "opening a window on America…opening up what we’re allowed to cover in America."

For better or worse, he’s clearly right.

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