Struggling Muncie, Ind., hopes CBS' new celebrity-cop reality show, 'Armed & Famous,' will get the city going gangbusters.
BY TIM JONES
January 7, 2007
When the sun goes down and the streets go dark, scofflaws in the old industrial city of Muncie, Ind., wonder if this will be the night they're brought to justice by La Toya Jackson, Ozzy Osbourne's kid Jack or - and this would really be special - "Wee Man," all 4feet, 7 inches of him.
Crime-fighting has entered the reality TV phase in Muncie, complete with a cast of five celebrities, TV cameras, free T-shirts and cash for suspects who agree to be photographed. And while only the most generous assessments would conclude that these C-grade actors in regulation blue are real police officers, they certainly play them on TV, and now in Muncie.
All of this has the locals yapping like magpies.
In fact, it's almost impossible to find citizen indifference to "Armed & Famous," a new reality TV cop show that recently wrapped up production and premieres Wednesday at 8p.m. on CBS. It has the Hollywood imports doing real police duty alongside Muncie's finest, who are never more than a couple of steps away, just in case things get out of hand. That means making traffic stops, domestic calls, prostitution busts - that kind of stuff.
Fear of embarrassment
Understand that Muncie is a Rust Belt city that has suffered an awful lot of painful, economic reality in the past 30 years. So the city's grasp for the proverbial 15 minutes of network TV fame - and on a reality show - has some folks worried that when the video editors separate the recorded wheat from the chaff, the chaff will get aired and the people of Muncie will look like idiots.
"They got too damn many reality shows on TV already. Besides, this isn't reality," said a grumpy Chet Skaggs, who was selling sweatshirts in a gravel parking lot next to a liquor store on the city's north side.
"They just brought a bunch of dummies in from California. ... I think this is crazy," Skaggs added, giving voice to the more vociferous viewpoint in Muncie.
The lower-volume rebuttal is more measured and frankly acknowledges the risk of opening a community to the glare of commercial television and the need to make something that draws ratings. But the clincher for advocates is their belief that any publicity is good publicity - just as long as you spell my name right.
"This is an opportunity to showcase my police department and put Muncie on the map," said Police Chief Joe Winkle, the city's top cop for 11 years.
"Cities all around the country spend money to promote themselves, but you couldn't pay for the advertising you'd get on CBS on a Wednesday or a Thursday night," said Winkle, who was involved in negotiations to create the reality show. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
The idea was hatched during the summer by TV producer Mike Braverman, a Muncie native who said he wanted to make a show "about the life of a cop seen through the eyes of celebrities."
"We want to parachute someone into a police department and see if they sink or swim," he said.
Not surprisingly, there's a lot of buzz about celebrity sightings which, if nothing else, provides a temporary diversion from news that a big auto-parts plant in town could be at death's door.
This isn't the first time Muncie has been under media scrutiny. Situated along the I-69 industrial strip between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Muncie is one of the most studied cities in the nation. During the 1920s it was the locale for the groundbreaking sociological report "Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture." That spawned follow-up examinations and documentaries, which led to Muncie references, filming or inspirations for such movies as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Hoosiers" and "The Hudsucker Proxy." Country artist Toby Keith sang about "your nana up in Muncie, Indiana."
All that attention, for some residents, is more than enough.
"I think we're more likely to be embarrassed by this," said Jessica Wilburn, executive chef at an upscale downtown restaurant who was taking an afternoon break outside. "I think it's kind of silly for people to be pulled over by celebrities. I mean, who wants to be pulled over by Wee-Man?"
Deeply tanned and a little paunchy, 57-year-old Erik Estrada, who starred in the 1970s motorcycle cop show "CHiPs," is the only one of the five-person celebrity cast who has the remotest connection to police work. Winkle said the department is careful how the celebrities are used. They always travel with seasoned officers and are never involved in homicide calls or big drug deals, he said. And they are supervised closely.
"They're busy. There's hair and make-up requirements; there's interviews. We keep them on a tight leash," Winkle said.
The five actors had to pass physical endurance tests to qualify as "reserve" officers - run 1.5 miles in 16 minutes and 28 seconds; do 30 sit-ups in a minute; and do 25 push-ups in a minute. Jackson, a singer-actress and sister of Michael Jackson, still has not satisfied the push-up requirement.
"We're working with her on that," Winkle said. "I think she'll get there."
There are other safeguards, such as making sure that Jason "Wee Man" Acuna doesn't respond to any crime calls at Ball State University, populated by students who might recognize him as the star of the MTV series "Jackass." "Wee Man" is big with the college crowd, Winkle said.
"There are still a lot of public people who think this is a terrible idea and we'll be embarrassed," the chief said. "All I can say is, Muncie is what it is. I love this town and I'd never do anything to make it look bad. The only way we get embarrassed is if we embarrass ourselves."