Silver Spring-based ‘America’s Most Wanted’ finds new success on Lifetime


Jon Walsh films a segment of “America's Most Wanted” in Alexandria, Va. on July 17, 2012. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN)

When Fox announced in June 2011 it was canceling “America’s Most Wanted” after 23 years, nobody was more surprised than John Walsh.

“Our ratings were great,” said Walsh, 66, the host of the show. “We owned Saturday nights.”

But financially, it had been a rocky few years for the Silver Spring-based television show. In 2010, “America’s Most Wanted” shut down its Los Angeles-based West Coast bureau and laid off one-third of its staff. There had been more budget cuts since then, and funds were tight.

A year later, “America’s Most Wanted” has a weekly spot on Lifetime. The show is operating with one-third of the staff and one-third of the budget it once had, but executives at Lifetime, the New York-based cable network that specializes in programming geared toward women, said the show has been successful.

“The minute we heard it might be available, we knew we wanted it,” said Rob Sharenow, executive vice president for programming at Lifetime. “We had a deal within weeks.”

Sharenow declined to discuss the show’s financial status but said it has boosted the network’s Friday night ratings by 50 percent.

“We’ve become leaner and meaner — we have to be in this economy,” said Roger Chiang, who has been working for the show for five years. “We have a producer who does three other jobs. I’m the CFO, COO and the executive in charge. It’s a collaborative effort.”

When the show started in the late 1980s, it was one of the few commercial television shows filmed in the Washington area, Chiang said. Qualified crew members were difficult to find — many relocated from Los Angeles to work on the program.

In the decades since, the rise of Washington-based Black Entertainment Television and Silver Spring’s Discovery Communications — the company behind Animal Planet and TLC — has created a larger base of television producers, directors and editors in the area.

“The proliferation of television production in D.C. has really mushroomed,” Chiang said. “We were the staple here in Washington for 20-something years.”

How the show started

Walsh, a hotel developer by training, was working on a $26 million project in Paradise Island, Fla., when his 6-year-old son was kidnapped from a department store and murdered in the summer of 1981.

Walsh and his wife lobbied for tougher laws governing sex offender registries and stricter sentences for those convicted of sex crimes and child abuse.

“All I wanted to do after that was try to change laws, to testify in Congress,” Walsh said.

He began spending more and more time in Washington and forged ties with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria.

A few years later, executives from Fox asked Walsh whether he’d like to host the network’s first reality show.

He told them he wasn’t interested.

“I said ‘What is reality television? What is Fox? And who is Rupert Murdoch?,’ ” he recalled. “I told them, I don’t want to go to Hollywood. I’m not a showbiz guy.”

They agreed on a compromise: Walsh could film in the Washington area, where he’d be close to law enforcement officials. He agreed to give it a shot.

‘A Hollywood thriller’

Earlier this month, Walsh spent the day filming with the Coast Guard. He flew in a helicopter over the District and cruised the Potomac River on a small boat.

A second boat, which was coasting alongside Walsh’s craft, carried the show’s cameramen, lighting reflectors and a teleprompter that displayed the host’s script.

Walsh took off his life vest and tossed it aside. The camera began to roll.

“I’m here with the U.S. Coast Guard, and what you see behind me is the skyline of Alexandria, Virginia,” he began to say.

Cut, someone said. We can’t see the skyline behind the trees.

The boats were repositioned. Walsh recited his lines again.

He continued: “Now our next case sounds like the plot of a Hollywood thriller.”

The show’s formula

The basic premise of almost every “America’s Most Wanted” segment is quite similar, said Greg Klein, co-executive producer of the show. There’s a fugitive on the loose who’s done something really bad — killed, raped, kidnapped, robbed — and viewers are asked to call in with tips and leads.

“It’s the standard boy-meets-girl story,” Klein said. “But it often ends up boy kills girl, boy puts girl in a septic tank.”

Producers use footage from surveillance tapes and crime scene photos when they can. They interview victims and their families and film reenactments — the costliest component of the show — to fill in the gaps.

There are currently about 30 people on staff — down from 100 last summer — including two who staff the show’s telephone hotline until 2 a.m. every Friday, taking down up to 130 tips a night and relaying them to law enforcement officials.

The show’s approach is the same as it has always been, producers said, but added that Lifetime’s base of female viewers have been particularly receptive to the show and its mission to protect children. The cable channel has ordered 44 episodes for the first season.

Walsh and his team say they are hopeful the show will continue for a second season.

“When Lifetime came to me, I thought, okay, we’ll pump some testosterone into Friday night,” Walsh said. “And now we’ve upped the capture rate. We’re catching people out of the country, all over the world.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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