In the opening scene from the A&E series 8 Minutes, hidden camera footage shows a man greeting a prostitute, her face obscured in post, in a Houston hotel room. “So, are you from Texas?” he asks. “How long you been in the life?”
“I’d rather not answer that,” she replies, her pitch-shifted voice rising with suspicion. “So, you want to get started?”
The woman is right to be suspicious. The man is ex-Santa Ana vice cop -turned-pastor Kevin Brown (pictured, right), the founder of the faith-based non-profit Safe Passage OC, which is devoted to rescuing victims of human trafficking.
Brown, along with a team of volunteers that includes former sex workers, conducts covert operations in hotel rooms to convince escorts to quit. He makes a date with the women and when they arrive, he reveals his identity, asks about their circumstances and offers to connect them with shelter, addiction and employment services.
He gives himself eight minutes – the amount of time he believes he has before a pimp starts to suspect something is up.
The idea to film Brown’s brand of vigilante justice for a TV series came from Relativity Television casting and development producer Bryan Valderrama, who came across a Los Angeles Times article about Kevin Brown and brought it to CEO Tom Forman who was immediately intrigued.
“The eight-minute rule that Kevin had made up for himself was a terrific framing device for a television show,” he said in an interview with realscreen. “It is rare that I get to say the thing that is actually happening out there is happening exactly the way we would produce for TV.”
Valderrama flew to Orange County to connect with Brown, establish his trust and shoot a sizzle tape that Forman could pitch to execs at A&E, the cable network behind similar hard-hitting reality TV series such as Intervention and The First 48.
Like other networks, A&E is looking to program more “authentic” documentary series to attract viewers tired of overproduced docusoaps and reality competition formats. Execs initially ordered a pilot and then greenlit eight episodes, the first of which debuts tonight (April 2) at 10 p.m. EST/PST.
“This felt more like a documentary than it felt like a reality show,” explains Drew Tappon, A&E’s SVP of development and programming. “We’d been pitched a lot of shows about saving prostitutes and stuff like that. This was different. It didn’t feel like it was coming from a sensational place. It felt real.”
However, it did not take long for the show to cause a stir on social media. Much like the world of self-appointed vigilante rescuers that 8 Minutes is tapping into, Relativity and A&E were criticized on Twitter, in op-eds and by sex worker advocacy groups when the show was announced last December.
After Forman announced the series in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, a Change.org petition urging A&E to cancel it popped up and nearly two dozen non-profits signed an open letter to Forman arguing that Brown’s methods are dangerous and ineffective and that by airing 8 Minutes, producers will put an already vulnerable population at risk of future violence and exploitation.
“While Mr. Brown may have experience as a vice cop and a pastor, by pretending to be a client interested in sex and surprising sex workers with a filmed intervention, he is not creating the trust and safety needed for individuals to make complicated life decisions,” the letter states.
“This kind of portrayal glosses over the many reasons why people are involved in the sex trade, and presents a quick and incomplete ‘solution’ without any follow-up or on-going support,” it adds.
Forman has not met with the signatories but says he has had “long” email conversations and a handful of phone conversations with advocates. He maintains that Brown is focused on helping victims of human trafficking, not women who choose to do sex work.
“I am interested in hearing that perspective and I think it’s important that we be mindful of it,” he says. “If I were a proud sex worker – and I know there are a lot of them out there – I’d think a guy saying, ‘Hey, let me come help you get out of that life,’ would be very insulting.
“When we’ve encountered those women [during production], they politely thank Kevin for the offer and go on their way,” he continues. “They like the life they’ve picked for themselves, and I think that’s fine, but there are a lot of women who did not choose this life and having ended up in it don’t know how to get out of it.”
“I respect all sides of this situation. What I hope is clear from the show is that we are not making judgments,” adds Tappon. “We’re hearing that there are a lot of people who said they did need help and there were people who said that they didn’t. They’ll all figure into the show at some point.”
Production took place in Houston late last year. Forman says just under 50 percent of the roughly 100 women filmed for 8 Minutes accepted Brown’s offers. Producers did not include around 10 women who either declined to participate in the show or whose stories were so specific the details would betray their identities even with faces blurred and voices altered.
“We have learned, for better or worse, it is hard to shock and surprise someone who is being trafficked,” says Forman. “When we explain what we’re doing, people have been understanding of why we’re doing it. Some have asked not to be on the show and we’ve respected that.”
The woman in the opening scene of the premiere episode is among those who rejected Brown’s help. She swiftly leaves the hotel room and enters an awaiting car in the parking lot.
The premiere episode features four women in total. Each scenario goes something like this: Brown and his team contact the “victim” via an online ad. He does not know if the woman has been forced to work as an escort so he attempts to deduce her situation based on her facial expression and visible bruising. He sets up a meeting, reveals his identity, pays for her time and offers resources.
During the meetings, two former sex workers-turned-advocates watch via closed circuit cameras and provide commentary from a nearby room. If an escort is receptive, an advocate arrives and makes the pitch. Meanwhile, a countdown clock ratchets up the tension as Brown’s liaison outside provides updates on her pimp’s movements.
In tensely dramatic scenes, the women who take the help are then hustled out of the hotel and driven to a safe house or referred to services such as the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition, the faith-based Elija Rising, former prostitute-turned-advocate Kathryn Griffin, the Harris County Sheriff office and Wellspring transitional housing for women.
Relativity vetted those services to ensure each was a category 501(c)(3) non-profit with a successful track record. “We looked at each part of the process and satisfied ourselves that these were legitimate organizations,” says Forman. “But I wasn’t going to go in and tell them, ‘You’re using the wrong addiction treatment counselor.’”
At the end of the premiere episode, a post-script informs viewers that of the other three women featured in the episode, one “accepted resources” but “is still in the life,” one stopped escorting and is two-months sober and another was moved to “a safe and new location” and is receiving addiction and treatment services.
Both Forman and A&E’s Tappon repeatedly insist that producers did not interfere in Brown’s process. If the early reception to 8 Minutes is an indication, networks such as A&E hoping to win over viewers with provocative subject matter can expect social media scrutiny – and may even welcome it.
“There is a distinct difference between Pastor Kevin and his organization and Relativity Television and A&E,” says Forman. “Their job is to save women who are being sex trafficked. We were interested in documenting it.”
“We wanted to make sure we weren’t doing what reality producers are accused of all the time: of going in and stoking the fire,” explains Tappon. “What I hope the show does is not cause controversy – I hope it starts conversations.”
8 Minutes premieres tonight (April 2) at 10 p.m. EST/PST. Watch a teaser below: