While most of this material is being used more in the entertainment and news realms than in advertising, the development nevertheless represents a curious trend in American viewing habits; indeed, from Rodney King to O.J. to Cops reality programming is giving television a different, aggressive, at times menacing new look.
One of the big questions the casual observer might ask is where does this stuff come from? Well, it's found at places like Archive Films in New York, along with King World, producers and distributors of Inside Edition, American Journal and Rolonda, as well as Industry R&D and Energy Films, both in Los Angeles.
Marjorie Weitzel, director of broadcast library services at King World, speaks of the kitschy, albeit true, often documentary style bits of footage that sell, and sell well because they're of human interest. There's the story of the woman who found a mammoth snake in her toilet, for instance. An example of rather unconventional footage of current events, once its popularity has waned here it is often sold to European television that entertains viewers with glimpses of American eccentricities. Another unusual one was the kitten who dialed 911.
King World plans on opening its doors to the industry sometime in the next year, making the massive quantities of material it already owns available for use elsewhere. A three-minute segment used on one of King World's programs, for example, may have come from hours of footage. King World is holding onto it all in hopes that some of it can find another home, either on a broadcast, cable or home video production. "You can never predict what is going to come back in style," says King World director of technical operations Rich Cervini, and just because of that comforting uncertainty, they're cross-referencing and cataloging everything they've got.
American Journal's Craig Rivera spent two weeks in a prison for a story he covered on the American penal system, for example. So when a German producer wants to do a segment on life behind bars and, by German law, is not able to enter one with a camera, King World has the perfect shot ready and waiting.
King World Dir-ect, a subsidiary of King World, is also the producer of such docudrama extravaganzas as Hot Pursuits and Dangerous Rescues and other similar videos one can find being sold on late night TV. Hot Pursuits is all bird's
eye-view captures of high-speed chases. Who buys it? "John Q. Public," says King World's PR director, Jan Murray. And Mr. Public thinks stock footage is perhaps the coolest thing to store in his entertainment center.
And the relatively recent explosion of real-life TV has fostered a change in the system. Used to be that the major stations would exploit the stringers (or freelance cameramen, or stockarazzi, depending upon with whom you're speaking) whose cameras caught those dramatic moments that station or network-affiliated camera crews didn't or couldn't cover; their images were then sold by the stringers to broadcasters for a nominal price.
Things are a little more competitive these days. Press IRD is an exclusive service that researches and catalogs such foot-age for the string-ers and then sells it on the cameramen's behalf. The company presently provides footage to 38 television shows, video magazines and other media internationally. A network of tipsters also provide for IRD leads to true stories, which the company then passes on to its program producer clients. If the client chooses to televise the story, IRD receives a commission.
What sells best? It's the dramatic footage that catches "the critical moment"-picture scenes of adorable puppies being pulled from storm drains or moronic teens being plucked from raging rivers-says Tom Colbert of IRD, that qualifies the footage as a keeper. "Sadly, history has been videotaped and is no longer written," laments Colbert. And although this is relatively good news for the camera-wielding small guy, the system of cataloging and indexing footage like this is still lacking organization. That which appears to be redundant may be thrown away in favor of a seemingly more complete version of a story.
Then again, it seems that what is popular at the moment is sold and resold, played and replayed ad nauseum. If it's good, in other words, it probably won't go to waste. Take the O.J. Bronco chase. Seen it a few too many times? That was filmed by Bob Tur and the L.A. News Service, a family-owned business whose main ambition is to beat the police to a scene and get it all on tape before anyone else does. L.A. News Service owns three helicopters and has an employee at all times tuned in to the police bands so that someone other than the local broadcast or cable news crews can catch such goldmines as the O.J. flight. And sell them. A lot.
And if it's big news, stock footage companies will have crews at the scene. At Camp O.J., the TWA flight 800 aftermath scene and the Oklahoma bombing, for instance, teams from all news, quasi-news and pseudo-news production companies pitched tents and shot at will. Without doubt, collections of this footage are extensive and expansive. No, not every company has the space to hold onto it all, but those that can are henceforth enabled to provide seemingly endless footage to the next news team that wants to do a story on, say, rich guys who kill their wives and run free.
Joan Sargeant, head of library research for sales at Energy, which provides stock footage to advertising agencies, production companies and TV producers ("TV news shows don't want to pay," she says), says their People and Lifestyles footage needs to be updated frequently. "It must be dramatic and captivating footage, and capable of evoking a reaction in the viewer," she says. But some news-type footage remains timelessly poignant, and often, well, just weird. Producers of a campaign for The New York Times, for example, requested of Energy footage of pollution, elephants being killed and baby seals being clubbed to death. Among some of the other strange requests Energy has received: an exploding television screen, please; a skiing Sumo wrestler; sandskiers; and macrophotography of a dust mite ("which looks like an alien from outer space," adds Sargeant). Something that resembles an alien landscape has been purchased from Energy to be used in a Star Trek promo. And they've apparently received enough requests for live storm and natural disaster footage to add a staff stormchaser of their own.
Archive Films supplies news-type footage to a long and impressive list of television shows, from Nickelodeon to A&E's Biography series. The library specializes in, as the name would suggest, historical news footage that would otherwise have to be recreated or simulated. They've provided images of JFK and Las Vegas for a recent 20/20 story on the self-proclaimed Mafioso mistress of Kennedy's, footage of Viscount David Limley for Inside Edition, and scene upon scene of Elvis doing everything save scrubbing the kitchen sink for a Showtime segment called "Elvis Meets Nixon."
Archive account executive Shari Rothseid admits that she doesn't think any of the requests she's received are particularly odd, "or maybe I just don't know what they're doing with my footage." Perhaps the collection of scenes she had to collect for a documentary on women's breasts seemed perfectly normal to her at the time.
But the big question is: Where's all this heading? Will O.J. forever be racing along the freeway? Will Elvis make the acquaintance of every important figure in American history? Will there always be documentaries on prisons and breasts? According to those involved in the real-TV segment of the stock industry, yup, there will- as long as there are storylines and the means to apply the footage,