Richard Metzger's Disinformation
Early in December of last year, Tivo's program listings and some local newspapers around the country listed a show called Disinformation, to be aired late that Saturday night on the Sci-Fi Channel. Some readers would have recognized that this was the Disinformation people?disinfo.com, the books You Are Being Lied To and Everything You Know Is Wrong, the Disinfo.Con of 2000?and thought Disinformation on tv? On the Sci-Fi Channel? No way.
They would've been correct. Disinformation never aired.
Last week I sat with Disinformation's founder Richard Metzger in the small apartment he and his girlfriend share on Christopher St. (He also has a place in L.A.) We were laughing at segments from his ill-fated tv enterprise. He calls Disinformation "a punk rock 60 Minutes." It looks like a typical documentary or "news magazine" program. It's the subject matter that distinguishes it. This is news from what used to be called "the fringe" and "the underground": weird science, conspiracy theories, ufology, political and sexual extremists, visionary artists, philosophers, psychos. Amok Books stuff. Feral House stuff. The Alexandrian Library of high weirdness. On tv.
We watched a segment of touching, fascinating interviews with she-males. There's a profile of performance artist/shock-rocker Kembra Pfahler (the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black), including some of Richard Kern's footage of her having her labia sewn shut. There's artist Joe Coleman blowing himself up. Robots fucking. A West Coast geek who calls himself "Rocketboy" (not to be confused with New York's "Rocketman") and insists he's a superhero from outer space. Interviews with outre intellectuals like Robert Anton Wilson and Howard Bloom (The Lucifer Principle). Clips from the lo-fi cable show Uncle Goddamn, in which fat old hillbillies mix it up with semi-pro wrestlers, sort of a Hee-Haw meets Jackass. A segment on extreme s&m porn. Marilyn Manson. Genesis P. Orridge. Kenneth Anger. Artist and time machine inventor Paul Laffoley. Sculptor and weird science buff Duncan Laurie. Conspiracy nut Brice Taylor, who, among other political-sexual fantasies, accuses the senior George Bush of being a pedophile.
Not much of this is new to me. I've interviewed or written about a lot of these people over the years. (I still owe Laurie a videotape he loaned me a few years ago of a rare appearance by weird scientist Andrej Puharich on the old tv show One Step Beyond.) What was cracking me up was the idea of this stuff being shown on the Sci-Fi Channel. As Metzger puts it to me, you have to wonder who was smoking crack in the executive offices when they greenlighted this project.
When Metzger launched Disinformation in 1996 it was as disinfo.com, a Drudge Report for the fringe, with links, articles and interviews on an array of "alternative" views and ideas. In less than a month it managed to lose the funding of its corporate backer, Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI, later absorbed by AT&T). Metzger and his business partner, a Brit named Gary Baddely, kept it afloat as an independent affair.
The site's still there, though Metzger's quick to admit it's not quite as up to date as it used to be, and he hasn't paid it much mind over the last couple of years. As a struggling little media concern, the Disinformation Company has been chasing money in other ways. The two Disinformation books, You Are Being Lied To and Everything You Know Is Wrong ($24.95 each), both Adam Parfrey-style compendiums of the edge, have sold well in small-press terms. Disinfo.con, depending on whom you talk to, was a moderate success or a countercultural Star Trek convention.
And Metzger's been making tv. In the later 90s he had produced some video for the late Pseudo's online "network." In 1999, through his UK connections, he got funding from Channel 4, England's hipper network, to make what turned into 16 half-hour episodes of a series called Disinformation.
"They didn't pay that much for it, so we ended up owning it," Metzger recalls. "They just paid a licensing fee. It was cable access-level low. The reason that this stuff looks good is that I and the editor, who also shot the second season, Nimrod Erez...killed ourselves to make the thing look really good."
And in fact, even with the outre subject matter, Disinformation looks as good as or better than any documentaries you see on, say, the Discovery Channel. Metzger makes a fine, professional stand-up host. The production values are bright, kinetic, futuristic.
The first episode aired in the UK in January 2000, running after Ally McBeal at 11:30, and the show became quite a success for late night. At the end of that season, Metzger says, a Channel 4 executive told them, "'I don't think you went far enough. If you're not challenging the legal department with every single minute of this show, it's not the show that I want.' And I'm thinking, 'Pinch me. That is a license to drive.'" So they went more extreme for the second season?Metzger remembers his prim partner Baddely saying he felt "assaulted" by the she-males segment?"and [the Channel 4 exec] didn't stand behind it at all. He just freaked out and buried this thing. He had constant battles with the legal department, which we lost every time." The second season ran very late at night and didn't do nearly as well as the first had.
Meanwhile, with 16 episodes in the can, they began shopping Disinformation around to cable channels in the U.S. Their agent at the time was Ben Silverman, the now immensely powerful personage who got Survivor and many other reality tv shows on air. "Practically all of television in the last two years came through his office at William Morris," Metzger says. Silverman pitched an hour-long Disinformation demo to American cable channels "to a resounding silence. Nobody but nobody responded to it," Metzger laughs.
Except for Bonnie Hammer, president of the Sci-Fi Channel. The demo she was sent included segments on the Montauk Project (ufology), clips from Uncle Goddamn and the segments on she-males, Brice Taylor and Kembra Pfahler.
Astoundingly, she greenlighted it. "Maybe she didn't watch the whole thing," Metzger, who says he likes and admires Hammer, surmises. "Maybe she just watched the first few minutes... This is not tame shit. It's not a jack that jumps back into the box."
Last August, the Sci-Fi Channel budgeted $200,000 for Metzger and his crew to edit a series of four one-hour best-of "specials" culled from the 16 half-hour episodes that had run on Channel 4. The first installment was originally slated to air around Thanksgiving, then pushed back to December. This was the one that got some listings, then never appeared.
That's because when he delivered the first three of the four shows shortly before that debut night, according to Metzger, Sci-Fi's executives went ape. To him, it was as though they were suddenly seeing the material?a lot of it the same footage they'd supposedly watched and approved in the demo?for the first time. At any rate, he says, they freaked.
"They say no Brice Taylor, no way. They say no Uncle Goddamn. This she-males thing, no way." And so on. Metzger says the list of things the channel eventually asked him to cut or change ran to 400 items, from excising whole segments to blurring the nipples on a nude in one of Coleman's paintings.
"At that point I was like this is never ever going to happen. This is a fucking joke... This is not going to work." He remembers protesting, "You bought Caligula. You did not buy Mary Poppins."
To no avail. Clearly, we weren't?aren't?ever going to see Disinformation on the Sci-Fi Channel. "They were very nice about it, and they paid out. They were so upfront and cool about it, realizing that they made a mistake, that they paid us the very next day."
Metzger points out further ironies in this story. The Sci-Fi Channel is owned by USA. The new head of USA Interactive, Michael Jackson, is a Brit. In fact, he was the head of Channel 4 when it funded and ran those 16 episodes of Disinformation. In effect, then, his new staff bought and then rejected one of his own shows. Then again, Metzger will concede, the show did not do well in its second season in the UK, and even in its very-late night spot, those raunchier second-season shows did earn Channel 4 a lot of protest and complaints from parents.
Metzger also likes to note that USA Interactive is owned by Vivendi-Universal. Maybe, he suggests, this is a tiny example of why Vivendi's in such financial turmoil.
So what to do with Disinformation now? Metzger's pursuing a few options. Though no longer associated with Silverman, he's pitching it again to American cable channels. With a little judicious editing, it would seem right for late nights on one of the HBO channels, for instance.
Another option is to edit a feature-length documentary film out of it, get some exposure on the festival circuit and then go back to cable to try to get the whole series aired. Either way, it will inevitably be sold on video and DVD at disinfo.com. And in the meantime, Metzger has turned the transcripts from all those interviews into a book, which Disinformation will publish in the near future.
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