"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 21 June 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

America's Most Affronted



Upon learning that Fox plans to

rub out America's Most Wanted at

the end of this TV season,

outraged armchair Eastwoods have

blasted the Fox bulletin board

with round upon round of boycott

threats and lethal invective.

Admittedly, their overall

indignation doesn't quite match

the level of righteousness

brought on by the cancellation

of My So-Called Life - yet it

still serves as an eye-opening

example of both the naivete and

sense of entitlement that many

people exhibit toward media.



Certainly Fox did its best to

promote AMW as a public service

with a federal mandate, but how

could it not have been clear to

even the dimmest boobtube

vigilante that the show was

ultimately just more of the same

old slimy ad-dollar bait? After

all, Fox was the network that

brought the sleaze of the

tabloids to TV; their

unassailably shameless devotion

to the lowest common denominator

has been their great competitive

advantage. So while the Dragnet

valor of AMW may have given it a

patina of social value that the

Bundy clan and Spelling's chic

psychotics lack, when audience

interest started waning in

recent years, its mandate proved

to be the same as any other TV

show's: get ratings or get lost.



Despite the doomsday screechings

of its diehard advocates,

however, it seems unlikely that

AMW's imminent departure from

the TV landscape will inspire a

new crime boom. Yes, the 417

fugitives AMW has nabbed since

its debut in 1988 is undoubtedly

more than Hooperman ever helped

catch, but this figure is

miniscule in the larger context

of American mayhem and

malfeasance. Indeed, at any one

time, the U.S. Marshals are

seeking some 20,000 fugitives;

without the help of AMW, they

track down about 14,000 of them

annually. The extra 50 from AMW

represent .003% of that total:

as far as the long arm of the

law goes, AMW hardly rates even

a fingernail.


[John Walsh]

So while AMW helped pioneer the

"reality TV" genre, its actual

impact was mostly symbolic. From

its opening title sequence -

designed by the director of New

Order's Bizarre Love Triangle

video - to its concerned-citizen

telephone operators, AMW was a

calculated, well-choreographed

parable designed to sate

Reagan-era America's desire for

moral order, punitive justice,

and traditional family values.

It's no coincidence that the

show debuted the same year

George Bush used the Willie

Horton ads to such good effect,

or that the first fugitive it

highlighted was a prison escapee

who'd been convicted of killing

a Midwestern family. Fed up with

concepts like rehabilitation and

the rights of the accused, the

nation was ready to forsake the

Solomon-like jurisdiction of

Judge Wapner for the righteous

vengeance of John Walsh.



Although such disparate

individuals as Treat Williams,

Rudolph Giuliani, and Joseph

Wambaugh were considered for the

role of host, giving

professional victim Walsh the

gig was one of the AMW

producers' best moves. Walsh's

telegenic aura of personal

tragedy lent a palpable sense of

urgency to the show, and his

man-of-the-people manner helped

preempt its potentially sinister

Big Brother aspect. Not that

this was really necessary, as it

turned out. While shrill sci-fi

hacks and dissident professors

had been engaging in

intellectual nail-biting for

years over the imminent specter

of hi-tech peeping Feds, it

turns out that the proles were

more than happy to police

themselves. Somehow, the Fox

think tank had recognized that

surveillance is ultimately just

another form of media, and thus,

potential entertainment.


[TJ Hooker]

But even though AMW gave couch

potatoes a chance to evolve into

stool pigeons, most of the

viewers who tuned into AMW had

little desire to help catch a

suspect; they simply watched it

for the low-budget, MTV-noir

thrills it delivered. Indeed,

the show's lurid crime

re-enactments initially got

strait-laced critics clucking

and a sizable viewing audience

clicking, but over the years,

that audience has dwindled to

the same softcore snuff devotees

who purchase those anachronistic

detective magazines you

sometimes still see in

small-town liquor stores.

Without stars, big-budget car

chases, professional-quality ham

acting, and other staples of the

cop genre, AMW simply couldn't

hold eyeballs any longer. In

terms of entertainment value,

all it had going for it was its

violence - in fact, the National

Coalition of Television Violence

once ranked it as the most

violent show on TV - and

violence is TV's most common




Ultimately, AMW was ahead of its

time. It brought a participatory

dimension to TV that was

different than that which the

talk shows delivered, but

unwittingly committed the

cardinal sin of new media:

interactivity without

personalization. Because so few

fugitives achieve coast-to-coast

celebrity status, AMW is stuck

broadcasting what is essentially

local news to a national

audience. Even though most of

the cases it highlights have a

geographic connection to at

least one of the nation's top 10

TV markets, these markets as a

whole only account for 25% of

the country's viewers. So unless

you're an up-and-coming

mindreader who can put a psychic

collar on a suspect you've never

seen in a place you've never

been, there's very little chance

you'll actually take advantage

of the show's interactivity.


And even if you do live in the

city where a fugitive's hiding

out, geographic proximity hardly

passes as true personalization.

If the wayward lawbreaker likes

to rob convenience stores and

hang out in mud-wrestling bars,

what chance do you have of

spotting him if you prefer the

Price Club and swanky dinner



Obviously, TV in its current

incarnation will never be able

to deliver the level of

personalization that could truly

turn AMW into an effective

interactive crime-fighting tool,

but perhaps the vast wasteland's

loss will be the vaster

wasteland's gain. A Web-based

AMW - quickly serving up the

thugs, con men, drug dealers,

and murderers whose interests,

habits, and haunts most closely

match your own - truly has the

potential to be a killer app.

courtesy of St. Huck