Jeffrey Dahmer, Tonya Harding, O.J. Simpson: 25 Years of Gonzo Gets on 'Inside Edition'
Deborah Norville, executive producer Charles Lachman and CBS exec Armando Nunez on why the newsmagazine show still garners 4.1 million viewers with its hard-working mix of investigative journalism and human-interest spectacles.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter Magazine.
Outliving such competition as A Current Affair, Hard Copy and American Journal, Inside Edition will mark its hard-fought 25th anniversary in January. "We're almost like the royal family of television," jokes longtime executive producer Charles Lachman. "We just go on and on."
With more than 8,000 episodes logged, the show has scored hot "gets" with such beleaguered subjects as Phil Spector and Paula Jones and still attracts 4.1 million viewers, consistently beating TMZ and Access Hollywood by more than 1 million viewers each.
Its secret recipe? A mix of investigative journalism, human-interest spectacles and kooky trend-spotting. "It's soup to nuts -- and some days we put a heavy emphasis on the nuts," says Deborah Norville, 55, the show's 18-year anchor and author of The Way We Are: Heroes, Scoundrels, and Oddballs From 25 Years of Inside Edition, out Oct. 22.
Here, Norville and her team recall the show's humble beginnings, its early revolving anchor desk and just what makes it tick.
Charles Lachman, executive producer: Very late in the 1988 TV season, Roger King [co-creator with brother Michael King] saw that the syndicated version of USA Today was failing, and he realized it was a unique opportunity to syndicate a fresh newsmagazine show. In a matter of weeks, he hired key top producers, we created the format of the show, and he sold it. We were on the air not in September but in January 1989. Back then, it was an extraordinary situation for a syndicated show to start midseason. A Current Affair was heating up, so we had to be uniquely different.
Lachman: The King brothers hired David Frost, and they saw him as offering the show instant credibility. The accent was an issue, and he did not last long. [After three weeks on the air and commuting weekly from his native London to film in New York, Frost tendered his resignation.] Bill O'Reilly took over and really helped stabilize the show. He was here for seven years, and the show made him a national name.
Deborah Norville, anchor: I was at CBS News as a correspondent, and my contract was up as anchor of America Tonight. They'd offered me weekend evening news, but I was expecting my second child, and having been hopping from continent to continent as a correspondent -- I had a conversation with my 3-year-old where he wailed on the phone, "Mommy, please come home" -- I just couldn't keep doing it. I was looking for a job where I could stay engaged at the national level but not be on the road all the time.
THE MAGIC FORMULA
Armando Nunez, president and CEO, CBS Global Distribution Group: What makes the show work is its combination of stories. It's not just celebrities and Hollywood -- it's the mix of human-interest stories and hard-core investigative reports that really makes it unique. Stations love the show for the ratings, and they can put it anywhere on their schedule: access, early fringe, even daytime. The show is a real workhorse.
Norville: When I first started, I remember one particular story [about a Playboy model] that was slugged, "Miss March goes to Jamaica." We screened it, and they asked for my opinion. I thought, "OK, do I tell them what I really think?" I said, "Since you're asking, I can't imagine why we would want to put this on television. I don't know what's more insulting: that you think our viewers want to see this, or that you think I could introduce it." To their credit, they respected me for saying it. The piece was re-edited into a less salacious bikini fashion story.
Lachman: We really like pursuing the ordinary person caught in an extraordinary circumstance and being the first show to get those interviews. Those are also the most challenging stories to get because we're competing against the networks, the magazine shows and cable news programs. We treat each day like it's sweeps.
Norville: We'll have a kick-butt investigative story, then one that just makes you scratch your head. I often want to introduce them by saying, "We don't make this stuff up."