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TELEVISION: Manson Family Values

4 minute read
Richard Zoglin

Charles Manson was, as usual, a satanic spellbinder, giving enigmatic nonanswers and snarling at interviewer Diane Sawyer: “I’m a gangster, woman!” Two former members of his “family,” Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, were, by contrast, rational and remorseful. “I stabbed him with a fork repeatedly and eventually left the fork in him,” said Krenwinkel, describing her part in the Tate-La Bianca murders. “I don’t believe any of us had any concept of really what we were doing.”

Even for the increasingly sensational network magazine shows, the ghoulish display last week was something of a milestone. In addition to the Manson hour — the first weekly episode of ABC’s new Turning Point series — serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and his father were brought together for a session on Dateline NBC. CBS’s 48 Hours spent another hour exploring the case of Russell Obremski, convicted of two Oregon murders in 1969 and recently freed on parole. And NBC’s Now served up its own creepy sociopath: a man in prison for kidnapping untold numbers of children from their bed and doing “unspeakable things” to them.

Unspeakable is how some were describing the state of network news. TV reviewers were righteously appalled that ABC would dredge up the Manson horrors once again. Producers at all three networks were privately embarrassed at the confluence of crime stories. The warden at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Wisconsin was fed up; he banned future interviews for Dahmer, who has already talked to Inside Edition and ABC’s Day One and had Sally Jessy Raphael next in line.

Not that it deterred viewers. The Manson show drew a smashing 18.1 rating (meaning 18.1% of all U.S. TV homes were tuned in), which will probably land it in the weekly Top 10. The Dahmer episode of Dateline (which also included a teary Nancy Kerrigan interview) got a 15.3 rating, the show’s highest ever. Undoubtedly, the crime wave will continue — and network news producers will continue to grit their teeth and hope their old journalism- . school teachers aren’t watching.

The Manson show seemed to crystallize the dilemma. At a press conference, ABC News president Roone Arledge described the in-house debate over whether to launch Turning Point with the Manson show or with another, softer program about a couple who gave birth to sextuplets. Picking Manson, said Arledge with unusual candor, was a matter of “pragmatism” — a way to draw immediate attention to the new series.

ABC executives defended the Manson show, pointing out that Krenwinkel and Van Houten had not been interviewed since their murder convictions in 1971. “If TIME magazine or the New York Times had a chance to do the first interview in 25 years with the Manson girls, would they turn it down?” asked ABC News vice president Joanna Bistany. Probably not. But at a time when the network newsmagazines are close to being overrun by tabloid sensationalism, introducing a new show by recycling the most notorious murder case of the past 30 years is hardly a reassuring sign.

The problem, of course, is that prime-time news shows must compete for ratings just as Home Improvement and L.A. Law do. “We could do an hour on Whitewater, but we wouldn’t survive,” says Now executive producer Jeff Zucker. “If I don’t do at least some of these true-crime stories, I won’t be doing anything.” Andrew Heyward, executive producer of CBS’s Eye to Eye, is worried that the similar impulses of these shows will ultimately turn viewers off. “To the degree that we all chase the same surefire stories,” he says, “we’ll stand out less and less.”

To be sure, these shows are more objectionable in the mass than individually. Sawyer’s interview with the Manson women, despite a couple of squishy moments (“The homecoming princess who sang in the church choir — remember her?”), was relatively restrained and undeniably compelling. Stone Phillips was less circumspect with Dahmer (“Was it the killing that excited you, or is it what happened after the killing?”) but didn’t pander needlessly.

Both shows recognized that viewers are fascinated with these stories less for the gory crime details than for the peek they provide into the extremes of human psychology. We watch to be reassured these people are monsters, not at all like you and me. And to face the fear that in some basic ways they are exactly like you and me. Krenwinkel and Van Houten today could be mistaken for high-school English teachers. Even Manson had a rare moment of recognizable ) humanity. Shown a videotape of Krenwinkel, whom he had not seen in nearly 25 years, he turned from the screen and offered one sincere, poignant response. “She got old on me,” he said.

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