Westgate Found Gold in Al Capone's, Titanic's Vaults : Firm's Top Production Is TV Ratings

Times Staff Writer

John Joslyn has a word to describe his work. He calls it "docutainment," the mixture of documentary with entertainment to create interesting television specials.

Television critics prefer another word. They call it hype, the mixture of carnival with exploitation to create big ratings.

About the only thing that can be definitively said about Joslyn's Burbank production company, Westgate Entertainment, is that no one televises the live opening of safes and vaults like it does. And no one to date has produced bigger ratings for non-network television shows or seems to have stirred as much controversy.

Last year, Westgate's "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults" featured as host a submachine gun-toting Geraldo Rivera. He was paid $50,000 to shoot the gun on live television, detonate dynamite and kill time in a way that would make a Capone hit man proud while hard hats drilled in vain for two hours searching for any artifacts the late mobster might have left behind in a Chicago hotel basement.

Set Ratings Marks

All the digging produced a couple of Prohibition-era liquor bottles, plenty of Prohibition-era dirt and a chorus of critics calling for the prohibition of Rivera on television.

"It's probably going to be engraved on my tombstone: 'Here's the man who came out of the vault holding two gin bottles,' " said Rivera, the former ABC News correspondent who now hosts a syndicated talk show.

Last month in Paris, Westgate produced "Return to the Titanic . . . Live" with host Telly Savalas in a two-hour program with a historical look at the famous ocean liner, plus underwater footage of the Titanic wreck.

The grand finale of the broadcast culminated with Savalas and French associates opening an assistant purser's safe found on the ocean floor near the shipwreck that contained a black purse with 161 coins. They also opened a bag found in the ship that contained jewelry, coins, cash and trinkets. But one top French photo agency executive associated with the show now says the safe opening was a "farce" because the items allegedly were not found in the safe at all but were probably gathered up later from the shipwreck. The show's producer has disputed that.

Despite widespread criticism, both shows set ratings and advertising records for syndicated, or non-network, television specials in the United States.

The Capone show, financed by Tribune Entertainment in Chicago, was the most watched syndicated program ever; 28.5 million families tuned in. The total domestic and overseas gross was $3 million, with advertisers paying a then-record rate for a syndicated program: $100,000 per 30-second spot.

Set a Record

The Titanic broadcast, backed financially by LBS Communications in New York, grossed $6 million as advertisers paid $200,000 per 30-second spot, a new record. About 22 million families watched the program, making it the second most watched syndicated program, behind only the Capone show.

"I haven't run into anyone yet who didn't see it," said Savalas, who was paid $100,000 to host the Titanic program in front of a black-tie Paris audience.

Although much of the Capone and Titanic shows were live and built to a big bang finish with the opening of a vault or a safe, Westgate isn't the first to use the trick. In 1984, George Plimpton was the host-for-hire as a safe salvaged from the Andrea Doria shipwreck was opened on live television.

But Joslyn and his producers are taking it a step further, weaving in pulsating, MTV-like music for the Titanic special that sounds like it came from a James Bond movie sound track. To build tension, armed guards were stationed around the studio in full view of the cameras.

"It's set dressing. It's how we display our wares," Joslyn said, although he insists that in both the Titanic and Capone shows he had to hire armed guards because he feared that Middle East terrorists might try to disrupt the shows.

Westgate got its start in the late 1970s when Joslyn, 42, a former advertising salesman for CBS, teamed up with Doug Llewelyn, 48, a former television reporter, Llewelyn is now familiar to viewers as the one who interviews litigants after Judge Wapner has given his verdict on the non-Westgate show, "The People's Court.

With a $25,000 investment, Joslyn and Llewelyn built a successful video press kit business by taping programs that resembled news stories, mostly about coming movies, that were distributed to television stations. Joslyn has since bought out Llewelyn's share of the business for an undisclosed sum.

Joslyn, now sole owner, oversees his privately held company from an office in a renovated eight-room house one block from the Burbank Studios. Thanks to the success of the Titanic show, Joslyn expects to generate about $6 million in revenue this year with profit of about $600,000. But he is shifting away from video press kits, and is trying to put together his first film production--a Capone feature for Home Box Office to directed by John Milius.

Joslyn got the idea for the Rivera-Capone TV special in 1985 after reading a newspaper article on the Capone vaults. The program was rejected by two networks, he said, before Tribune agreed to back it with a $900,000 investment. Westgate made about a $250,000 profit from the show, Joslyn said.

Investors Filed Suit

To put together the Titanic special, Joslyn had to negotiate a deal with a French government agency that owns a small submersible craft that could dive the necessary 2.5 miles down to the Titanic. In all, the project cost $6 million, with the $2 million in production costs put up by LBS. Joslyn said Westgate could make from $400,000 to $500,000 profit on the Titanic broadcast.

Westgate, and other partners in the Titanic venture, are also being sued for more than $300 million by a group of Florida investors who say they were unfairly squeezed out of the venture, an allegation Joslyn denies.

Despite the successful ratings, Joslyn's critics say his shows are gimmicky, amateurish and exploitative. Steve Daley of the Chicago Tribune wrote of the Capone show that "the entire production was so slapdash, so unintentionally comic that Scarface himself would have blushed if he'd had a piece of this action."

Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who discovered the Titanic wreck, said Westgate's production "was like a game show. The pre-release information was clearly hyping it, the guards were guarding the safe when they knew what was in it."

Indeed, Hubert Henrotte, president of Sygma, a French photo agency that bought the foreign television distribution rights to the Titanic broadcast, has insisted that the whole safe opening sequence was a fraud because items were planted in the safe.

"There were only five silver coins in the safe when it was found. And the safe shown on television was not the original one taken from the water," Henrotte said, speaking through an interpreter during a telephone interview from Paris.

Henrotte says that underwater footage from the recovery operation shows that the safe was so badly deteriorated that it couldn't have contained the items. His accusations have caused a stir in France, where one newspaper, Canard Enchaine, satirized the whole episode by calling it, "The story of an empty safe that makes dollars flow."

Joslyn and Llewelyn deny Henrotte's allegations and say they stem from numerous disagreements Westgate had with Sygma over how the program was being distributed. The two acknowledge that that items were taken out of the safe before the TV broadcast so they could be preserved, but insist only the original items found were put back in the safe for opening on television.

Besides, Joslyn adds, "If you're going to salt it, you're not going to salt it with a few coins. You'd put Rolex watches in it, wouldn't you? We're clean."

Joslyn has his defenders. "John is a terrific salesman. He's got a little bit of P. T. Barnum in him and I admire him for that," said Peter Marino, vice president of program development for Tribune Entertainment.

Rivera sees Joslyn's programs as examples of how independent television stations must separate themselves from network stations.

"The deck is stacked against them in a sense because, for the audience, they are the stations of last resort," Rivera said in an interview. "They have to distinguish themselves by not being obvious and not taking the approach that has been done before."

The success of the Capone and Titanic shows have brought Joslyn plenty of unsolicited ideas for future programs. Some of the rejected ideas included exploring wrecked Spanish galleons using dolphins, and searching for UFOs.

But Joslyn has some productions in the works that may well keep alive the controversy of his previous programs. Joslyn has in mind a live show that would open a series of bunkers throughout Europe built for Adolf Hitler.

Joslyn explained: "When you look at the success we know these kind of events generate, we feel we have to find someone who is going to have that mass audience appeal. Hitler has that, of course."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°