Sightings: From amateur footage to national syndication

'Throughout history, periods of change have bred a massive infatuation with ufos, ghosts, psychic phenomena and all those things which we just can't explain,' says Stephen Kroopnick, co-executive producer of Sightings: In-Depth and Beyond....
March 1, 1998

‘Throughout history, periods of change have bred a massive infatuation with ufos, ghosts, psychic phenomena and all those things which we just can’t explain,’ says Stephen Kroopnick, co-executive producer of Sightings: In-Depth and Beyond.

The new season of Los Angeles-based Winkler/David Productions’ investigations of alleged supernatural and otherworldly goings on began airing in January, exclusively on The Sci-Fi Channel. The five two-hour specials are budgeted at approximately us$450,000 each.

‘In some instances, we’ve selected key stories which represent the theme of the special,’ says Kroopnick. ‘Secrets of Alien Abduction’, for example, chronicles the Allagash incident, in which five campers were apparently abducted. The show delves into the victims’ backgrounds and the after-effects of the incident, as well as the event’s researchers and the methods used.

Since the show’s debut in 1991, Sightings’ producers have welcomed amateur video footage of alleged unusual phenomena. ‘Contributors can expect to receive an honorarium of us$100-$200, which includes an on-camera interview with the person providing the footage, a background interview with that person and the footage itself,’ says Ann Daniel, co-executive producer, stressing that the series doesn’t usually pay large sums for such material.

Submitted footage is examined by special-effects experts. ‘Once we’re satisfied that the footage has not been deliberately falsified, the photographer is asked to sign documents which enable the material to become the show’s property,’ says Daniels. ‘However, in most cases it is not exclusively the show’s property, so if the person sells the same footage to five other shows, he or she could potentially make a lot of money.’

The series originated six years ago as a one-off. ‘A manager of a local Fox tv station in Atlanta, Georgia, brought us a television show that explored the world of ufos and aliens,’ says Daniel. ‘At that time, it had been developed as a one-time special, but we told its creator, Linda Moulcon Howe, that we wanted to do more than one show.’

With Moulcon Howe’s blessings, Sightings debuted as a series of one-hours on the Fox Network. Its second Fox season ran as a weekly single-topic half-hour series. From 1992-1993, the show explored such issues as psychic detectives, earth mysteries and the ongoing fascination with ufos and aliens.

Having amassed 42 installments, Sightings, distributed by Paramount Domestic Television, ventured into national syndication in 1994. It promptly went to weekly one-hours, and remained in syndication until 1996, when 22 hours were produced for The Sci-Fi Channel.

‘We acquired Sightings after convincing Paramount the show was perfect for our network,’ recalls Barry Schulman, The Sci-Fi Channel’s vp, programming. ‘Now we have the five specials, we’re airing one-hour episodes on a daily basis and we’ve edited some hour-long episodes down to 30 minutes… the show works in 11 formats.’

Sightings has made a sharp mark internationally; one-hour episodes (budgeted around us$300,000) have been shown in Argentina, Australia, Chile, Ecuador, Germany, Panama, Portugal, Singapore and South Africa. Investigations have taken the Sightings team to Israel, Brazil, Mexico, Canada and other parts of the world, while respected dignitaries, like author Arthur C. Clarke and physicist Stephen Hawking, are interviewed on both paranormal and science-related topics.

‘We were doing pieces on cloning and other hot scientific topics long before these subjects became issues in the press,’ says Daniel. ‘During the show’s infant stages we were constantly ridiculed, but now newspapers, magazines and other outlets are asking us to provide them with interview source material for their scientific stories because they know we’re in contact with a high echelon of world-renowned scientists.’

Occasionally, the producers are approached with fake incidents. Daniel recalls one which took place in California: ‘Supposedly, spectral fires were appearing in a private home. Initially, it sounded very interesting and spooky, so we sent a researcher and tv crew to the house. But when they noticed people dropping lighted cigarettes into a trash can, they realized that the whole thing was being hoaxed, so we pulled the segment and told the crew to come home immediately.’

Especially controversial was the 1996 episode which revealed the ‘Alien Autopsy’ footage to be little more than an elaborate hoax. Seen on the Fox Network, the footage supposedly features the autopsy of an extraterrestrial recovered when a ufo allegedly crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947.

‘We came to our conclusion after interviewing many special-effects experts, but [on the website], many people were unhappy with our revelation because they preferred to believe in its authenticity,’ recalls Daniel. ‘However, people must be critical thinkers because everything just can’t be automatically embraced. They simply have to pick and choose to believe in those things that seem the most credible – especially since we’re living in a world where it’s very difficult to prove anything.’

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