Dave Bell, Pioneer of Reality Television, Dies at 84

Dave Bell - Publicity - S 2016
Courtesy of ITV Studios

Dave Bell - Publicity - S 2016

The Emmy and Peabody Award winner "was ahead of his time as a social documentarian," said NBCUniversal's Bonnie Hammer, one of his many mentees.

Dave Bell, the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning pioneer of reality television who served as a mentor to NBCUniversal Cable chairman Bonnie Hammer and many others, has died. He was 84.

Bell died Friday of cancer at his home in Leucadia, Calif., said Cynthia Shapiro, the former CEO of Dave Bell Associates, the company he founded in the mid-1960s.  

“Anyone over 50 who has worked in reality TV at some point worked for or with Dave Bell,” Shapiro said. “Dave gave hundreds of directors, producers, writers, editors and production crew the opportunity to prove themselves in the reality TV business and effectively launched their careers.”

In 1984, Bell executive produced Alive & Well, a two-hour daily magazine series for syndication and the USA Cable Network. The program was hosted by psychologist Dr. Laura Schlessinger and exercise guru Kathy Smith, and Hammer served as a showrunner during its final season.

“Dave was ahead of his time as a social documentarian who walked the talk on women’s issues, equally passionate onscreen and off," Hammer said in a statement. "He was the best kind of mentor, providing the space to learn and grow but always there with support and advice when you needed it.

"And he embodied the qualities that matter most in any business and in life: generosity, fairness, wisdom and, above all, kindness.”


When Hammer was at Lifetime, Bell executive produced documentaries for her including Gangs: Not My Kid (a mom dealing with her children joining a gang); Innocence on Trial (child abuse); Dying for Love (women with AIDS); and Post-Partum: Beyond the Blues, all of which were produced and directed by Emmy winner Shari Cookson.

"I was barely out of college, and instead of the typical 'get me a coffee' or 'Xerox this,' he said, 'Here, run this show.' He truly was remarkable in his trust and belief that you could do it," Cookson said in a statement.

Bell also executive produced social-issue documentaries for HBO including Hooker, Skinheads and Asylum.   

After growing up in Andover, Ohio, and serving in the Army, Bell started his career as a documentary filmmaker, producing hundreds of hours of medical, police and social-issue films for broadcast and cable.

A series of documentaries produced under his DBA banner, Missing … Have You Seen This Person?, became the basis for the long-running NBC series Unsolved Mysteries

Bell’s other reality credits include the syndicated LAPD: Life on the Beat and Missing: Reward, hosted by Stacy Keach

Bell also executive produced telefilms and features including the Peabody-winning Do You Remember Love (1985), starring Joanne Woodward and Richard Kiley (Bell won an Emmy for that); Nadia (1984), about Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci; and The Long Walk Home (1990), starring Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg. 

Bell was a lifelong amateur-radio operator who produced and/or directed several documentary films on the subject, including Ham’s Wide World, featuring Sen. Barry Goldwater; Amateur Radio Today, hosted by Walter Cronkite; and Amateur Radio’s Newest Frontier, with King Hussein of Jordan speaking with astronaut Owen Garriott as the space shuttle Columbia passed over the Arab world.

Bell also wrote a 2014 book about his ham radio adventures titled World’s Best Hobby.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Alice (Sam), four children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.