When Good Networks Go Bad

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But when talking about his new practical-joke show, UPN's RedHanded, Nelson, 43, gets as didactic as Nash. "We're creating a morality play. But the person isn't aware it's a morality play," he explains. "It's Candid Camera meets Seinfeld meets The Truman Show." Meets something really, really stupid.

Schotz, the 41-year-old CEO of LMNOP (Leave My Name Off Productions), corners the freak-show stuff, concocting faster-paced versions of That's Incredible! His Fox series Guinness World Records: Primetime features oddities like worm-eating contests and the world's largest tumor, and his upcoming Fox special World's Most Shocking Medical Videos has footage of a woman's nose being regrown on her forehead. Schotz also makes the more wholesome Kids Say the Darndest Things and Behind Closed Doors with Joan Lunden. Lachman, who not long ago was known for creating Solid Gold and for winning an Emmy for his coverage of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, is now branded with credits like Fox's When Animals Attack and its upcoming The World's Most Shocking Moments 2: Caught on Tape.

Despite the contributions of these four pioneers, the shockumentary genre is really the child of Mike Darnell, the Fox vice president of specials and alternative programming, who saved the network when it was drowning in failed sitcoms. In 1995, Darnell slotted Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?, after which there was no turning back to Herman's Head. The next year, after seeing Nelson's World's Most Dangerous Animals, he persuaded Lachman to turn out the edgier When Animals Attack for sweeps. Now Darnell comes up with 75% of the ideas for Fox's reality specials, grateful that the phrases world's most and caught on tape aren't copyrighted. Thirty-six, 5-ft. tall, with curly, flowing hair, Darnell is unapologetic about his shows. "For years Dateline has unabashedly done survivor stories using the exact same footage that we use," he says. "In fact a couple of times they beat me to the punch for footage."

But the Fox exec may have got all he can out of the clip-show format, even though the Spouses show does offer a very promising, Springeresque twist. The genre's leading producers are moving on to the next generation of really ridiculous programming: stunt TV. Nash is bringing back a version of the '50s show You Asked for It, only instead of viewers asking to see the vault at Fort Knox, they'll be treated to five-legged pigs and lady sumo wrestlers. Nelson's next project is Crash Test, in which producers pick things to blow up. (The first two ideas: exploding 1,000 parking meters and throwing a Corvette off a building.) Meanwhile, Lachman is working on a show in which he'll sink a ship and tape it going down in real time. By then, with luck, we'll all be watching cable.

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