Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

April 25, 2012

Lights, camera, action: Reality television in the Telegraph newsroom

In what has felt like a bad flashback to the college years, I have spent the past week or so studying and researching. Most of the research has been done at home, thus ensuring little or no free time to do important chores — such as cooking or cutting the grass.

No, I didn’t have a big test or exam to pass. Instead, I simply had to refresh my memory about a high-profile murder case in our region that is more than seven years old. You would think things like that would still be fresh in our minds, but it really isn’t. As journalists, we jump from one topic to the next on a daily basis. The big story one day is often old news the next. It’s the nature of the job.

The problem is that I wrote about 95 percent of the stories on this particular case. As a result, when a Tennessee-based television documentary company began researching the case, apparently my name came up as well. The case in question was the 2005 homicide of a prominent southern West Virginia Democratic Party leader, the late Dr. Ebb Keister “Doc” Whitley.

Today, more than seven years later, the Discovery Investigation channel has taken an interest in the high-profile investigation for an upcoming episode of the series “Sins & Secrets.”  The film crew is currently interviewing local residents and filming the region for the nationally televised show. They plan to recreate certain elements of the crime using actors.

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Love it or hate it, reality television is something you can’t escape anymore. You have a singing, dancing or cooking competition on just about every channel, and it seems like television cameras are following just about every B-list celebrity out there nowadays.

The summer television season is the worst anymore. It’s a virtual wasteland of nothing but one reality television competition after another. It really makes you long for the good-old days of summer repeats. Whatever happened to summer repeats anyhow?

 I’m still partial toward “Survivor” — the grandfather, if you will, of reality television — having watched the jungle-based competition since season one. It’s one of the few reality television shows I’m willing to watch. Or at least that was the case until about two weeks ago.

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The Investigation Discovery, or Discovery ID, channel is a bit different. Yes, it is non-stop reality television 24 hours a day. But it is real, reality television. Real cases. Real stories. Real people. Real tragedies. And from what I’ve seen so far, it’s all handled in a professional manner.

I subscribe to the local cable company and, in all honesty, have somewhat in the neighborhood of 200 channels or so — 95 percent of which I don’t watch. I’ve yet to figure out what half of those channels are, and was convinced that I didn’t have the Discovery ID channel when my boss, Editor Samantha Perry, began telling me just how great the Discovery ID channel is. She has satellite television, so I figured it was a channel that she received, and I didn’t.

I found the regular Discovery channel on channel 33, but programming ranging from “Deadliest Catch,” to “Mythbusters,” and I’m told if I keep watching I’ll see the much-talked about “Shark Week” specials. However, the channel didn’t appear to have any real investigations as Samantha was talking about. I was prepared to call the cable company and complain. How could I possibly get so many channels I don’t watch, yet not find the one I was really looking for?

Then, by accident, I stumbled upon channel 111. Guess what, it was the Discovery ID channel. I’ve been watching it non-stop since. Sam was correct. It is addictive. There are some really fascinating stories — real stories — told on the Discovery ID channel.

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When the Discovery ID film crew arrived at the Daily Telegraph Monday morning to review old newspaper articles of the case, I received a quick, first-hand lesson in how unscripted, reality television actually works. Suddenly, dreams of competing in a reality competition in some distant jungle didn’t seem quite as appealing anymore — especially not after cameras were pointed in my direction. The tables were turned. Instead of asking questions, I was being asked questions. No notes to fall back upon. No script.

This, of course, isn’t McDowell County’s first brush with reality television. Spike TV’s “Coal” was a fair, and very popular, portrait of the region’s coalfields.

Now, the region — and McDowell County in particular — is once again getting the reality television treatment. Unfortunately, the subject matter this time around is the tragic death of a well-known southern West Virginia political leader.

The film crew estimates it will take about six months for the documentary to be completed if all goes as planned. It will be interesting to see how the final product turns out.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com.

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