The Life And Death Of A T.V. “Pilot” (Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying About The Air-Date)

by Chuck Smith

In October 2006, I was in charge of producing two television “pilots” for the History Channel based on a new voice-analysis technology known as Layered Voice Analysis (LVA) which would supposedly be able to tell if a person was telling the truth or not. The idea behind the series – called True History – was to look at famous people and events from the past, and analyze their voices to come to amazing new conclusions about historic events. The fact that the first TV show based on this technology was an MTV dating show had me a little worried, but I was happy to be trying to develop a more serious program.

The first episode I did was on the Boston Strangler. Learning about the case was fascinating for me. I didn’t realize there was a tape recorded confession from Albert DeSalvo, and I also was completely unaware of the controversy regarding the confession. Once we did the analysis and completed the program, I still wasn’t exactly sure if the LVA technology was for real or not, but the analysis and conclusion that DeSalvo was indeed the Boston Strangler made sense to me.

Once that show was complete, we had to pick a new person or point in history to analyze. As fate would have it, I read an article about my friend Stanley Nelson’s upcoming film on Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. “That’s it!” I thought. “What a great topic and fascinating character to analyze.” That initial excitement grew ten-fold once I saw Stanley’s film and then learned of the repository of tapes available through thiswebsite. With the Boston Strangler, we had just twenty minutes of scratchy audio. With Jim Jones, we had hundreds of hours of mostly clear audio to work with.

As I began to sift through the tapes looking for key moments to analyze, I realized the amount of audio was both a blessing and a curse. The more I listened, the more fascinated I became. It seemed amazing that Jim Jones was there for anyone to decipher; all you needed was some time and a computer. By listening to the tapes, I began to get a true understanding of who this person was – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Want to hear the “good” Jim Jones? Listen to his rants about capitalism and racism from his sermons of the early 1970’s: “The whites have all the power!” Want to hear the “bad” Jim Jones? Listen to any of the “white night” tapes from Jonestown and hear how manipulative he had become.

Once I pulled some audio selects, I sent them to the voice analysis people to see what they could determine. I won’t go into the details of every audio clip we tested, but I will say that their findings made sense to me. In the “ Death Tape” when Jones says, “I don’t know who killed the congressman,” the computer came up with a “Probable False”. Then, when various members of Peoples Temple came forward to say they were “willing to die,” the computer analyzed some as being “Truthful” and some as being “Probable False.”

That made sense. The fact is, even without a computer to assist you, it’s possible to hear it in the people’s voices themselves. Brainwashed or not, some people declared their willingness to die for the cause in such a willful and determined voice that you can feel their belief, while others seemed to be coaxed into proclaiming something they didn’t really believe.

The story was there, and it was worth sharing. I began setting up interviews and speaking with survivors over the phone. As I slowly learned more, I was continually amazed at everyone’s willingness to share their experiences with me. I remember great conversations with Tim Carter and others, but in the end we chose to visit San Francisco for our interviews and our voice analysis scene.

During our week in San Francisco, we did background interviews with former Temple members Garry Lambrev, Jordan Vilchez, and Eugene Smith; Leo Ryan’s daughter Pat Ryan; and reporter Marshall Kilduff. Then we shot an LVA analysis scene with Sherwin Harris, whose daughter Liane had died in Georgetown. During the scene, we played previously-analyzed clips of Jim Jones’ voice for Sherwin, while our expert told him what was going on and gave him the results. I had planned the interviews to be about 20 minutes each, but I soon discovered that listening to everyone’s stories was so fascinating that I couldn’t stop. My crew was equally drawn to the power of these interviews. One of the cameramen came up to me afterwards and said those were some of the best interviews he’s ever filmed. I completely agreed.

That’s why I’m now suffering from “producer guilt.”

What is “producer guilt”? It’s when the great material you film has little or no chance of being seen by a large audience. After the S.F. shoot, I came back to NY and edited the material into what I and others at my production company thought was a terrific 25 minute “rough-cut”. We delivered the show to the History Channel and waited… and waited. No response.

I finally learned that the head person at the History Channel who had ordered the True History pilot had left the company. That was a very bad sign. Whenever a new head person arrives at a network or channel, the first thing they do is look at what the old person has in development and then decide if they want to “kill” it or buy some more episodes. Well, as you may have guessed, they killed True History. It turns out that History Channel is no longer that interested in history and, like most networks, they are now actively pursuing younger audiences. I’ve produced other “pilots” that haven’t been aired, and it’s never easy, but this one hurt more than usual. I wanted people to see this show and learn what I learned about Jim Jones and Jonestown. There is still a slight chance that another channel will buy the True History concept, but I’m not holding my breath and I’m already working for another company.

What’s the moral of the story? Well, I know that each of the seven people who worked directly on this show (from the editor to the production assistant) was somehow changed by learning more about Jonestown. We learned something about human nature and about tragedy, and we became more understanding of the power of personality. I know that I have talked about this story with 10 or more people and shared my sympathetic views, and I’m sure everyone else who worked on the show did too.

And so the story spreads and the ideas filter out. And this is how the world changes, one by one, and once the process starts, it never stops. Thanks to everyone who helped me put this “pilot” together. I hope that the fact that it never aired won’t deter the Jonestown community from continuing to share their vital stories and history.

(Chuck Smith is a filmmaker and freelance TV producer who lives in New York City. He can be reached at chuck@northsouth.tv.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on March 4th, 2014.
Skip to main content