In an earlier TV generation, it was said you knew you were in trouble if you saw Mike Wallace and a 60 Minutes camera crew waiting for you in the lobby. This century, when you see Detroit homeboy and "To Catch a Predator" host Chris Hansen pop out from a darkened back room and enter the kitchen, you know your tush is toast — especially if you're the kind of perverted asshole who gets his jollies trying to seduce children.
Truth is, Hansen doesn't even have to be in the house. "We were working on a story that took us through Birmingham, Ala., the other day, and I was leaving the airport with one of the security guys, the producer and the associate producer," says Hansen, who grew up in Bloomfield Township, graduated from Michigan State University and spent his formative TV reporter years working the mean streets for Channel 4 (WDIV) and Channel 7 (WXYZ). "The guy parking cars took a look at us and said, 'Uh-oh, somebody's in trouble now! Somebody did something wrong in Birmingham!'"
Hansen, 48, has become America's blond, square-jawed face of the war against Internet pedophiles. Of all the varied investigative reports he files for Dateline NBC, his "To Catch a Predator" series with producer Lynn Keller is far and away the best known — and luridly, most popular — of the newsmagazine's stories. The 12th installment of "Predator" is set to air later this month on NBC/Channel 4. (The ongoing, increasingly acrimonious writers' strike has completely jacked up all network prime-time schedules; check local listings for broadcast date and time.)
Ironically, Hansen says he got the idea for the hidden-camera sting operation — in which potential sexual abusers strike up chat room conversations with decoys, happily drive to a sham house and are confronted by Hansen, a transcript of their e-mail messages and the police — from WDIV's current investigative reporter Kevin Dietz, a lifelong friend who hipped him to the online monitoring group Perverted-Justice, Dateline's partner in "Predator."
"So I pitched it, and a lot of smart people here weighed in on it and improved the way we had thought about doing it," Hansen says. "I think the 'Predator' franchise has been great on a number of levels. When it comes to online safety for kids, and adults, I think we've raised awareness and created a dialogue that didn't exist three-and-a-half years ago. Clearly, it has resonated with viewers for a variety of reasons, and I'm attached to it."
Adds Hansen, who reached the pinnacle of pop culture notoriety this season when he appeared as a character on South Park, "The other thing 'Predator' has achieved, I think, is that it's reminded all of us here, and in other (TV news) shops as well, that impact journalism, stories well-told using enterprising techniques, are not only important, but people like them and watch them — lots of people. We are now working on lots of other great, important investigative stories on other topics using the same techniques we've used on 'Predator.' So I think that's been a positive."
The negative? As compelling and revealing as their on-camera "gotchas" are, "To Catch a Predator" is only a dozen episodes old. Hansen realizes, lamentably, that the series can't even touch the tip of this sexual epidemic.
"I never knew before getting involved with these investigations that so much of this activity was going on," he says. "I mean, obviously there are chat rooms, social networking sites, and it occurs. I just didn't ever think it occurred at this level. I think we've had an impact in terms of guys being afraid to take part in this, but we still see it. It's almost as if these guys don't think it could ever happen to them.
"They get going in the chat rooms and porn sites, one thing leads to another, and they blur the line between fantasy and reality," Hansen theorizes. "The next thing you know, they're knocking on our door. They don't believe they could ever get caught, and the reality is, they're right. The odds are in their favor. We've done this 12 times in three-and-a-half years, the police and FBI offices across the country do these stings on a weekly basis. But still, I imagine the odds of getting caught probably are quite low."
Karen for her community
In full disclosure, Detroit media personality and columnist Karen Dumas and I co-hosted a cable TV series on movies a few seasons back, and I happily guested on her former radio show for WCHB-AM. How this intelligent, provocative, engaging talent can't find a larger platform for her abilities has mystified me for years.
She's not doing badly with what she has, however. Next Detroit, the public affairs show she hosts on Comcast Channel 10 in Detroit, received an honorable mention award from the National Association of Telecommunications Officials and Advisors (NATOA), the first time Detroit's local origination cable channel has received recognition for any of its programming. The program, at 6 p.m. Tuesdays and repeating throughout the week, discusses topics like infant mortality and animal control with representatives from the city in its new studio home, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. "It may seem small on the grand TV scale," Dumas says, "but it's a big deal in a community that is disproportionately uninformed or misinformed." Told you she was good.