by Michael Fedo
Last Tuesday our intrepid reporter heard champagne popping at the headquarters of American Insider, Inc., in St. Paul, Minnesota as executives and employees celebrated the company's takeover of Parlor Games Cable Television from Parker Brothers. The program schedule has been revamped, and a new line-up, in the tradition of AII's tabloid, "American Insider," was introduced. The show receiving most attention is "Celebrity Death Watch," which presents intensive coverage of the final exits of famous persons. CDW emanates from hospitals, hospices, or homes where international celebrities lay terminally ill. AII scored a coup, not to mention significant buzz, by naming Dixon McTavish program anchor. The reclusive McTavish, a best-selling author, formerly hosted International Radio's popular "Small Town Buddy" program for nearly 20 years. Company vice president Carole Versa discussed AII's expansion into television with an invited assembly of nearly 50 reporters before presenting McTavish, who sat alone at a table jabbing a pencil into an empty Styrofoam cup. Reporters wondered whether McTavish would find time to tell stories on "Celebrity Death Watch" as he had done so successfully on his previous show. "We'll be dealing with tragedies on this new program," he said. "However, I will say that many of my small-town friends have miles to go before they sleep." He paused, glancing at Versa. "Make of that what you will." At that point an aide interrupted the briefing and summoned McTavish to the studio where the day's "Celebrity Death Watch" was about to start. Our peregrinating reporter, induced by the promise of a cold diet soda and chips, joined other journalists in the screening room. As an air of solemnity swept through the studio, crews assumed positions. The camera zoomed in on Dixon McTavish. "Today, 'Celebrity Death Watch' takes us to Aspens of Missoula Hospital, where Mrs. Avril Bugbee is in the final stages of renal failure," intoned McTavish. "Though not a celebrity herself, Mrs. Bugbee is the mother of computer magnate, Eli Branch. Mr. Branch recently arrived in Missoula, having terminated a Mozambique vacation with his new bride, the Italian starlet, Sylva Scompigliare, to be with his mother in her last hours. "I'm Dixon McTavish, and we'll be back with today's 'Celebrity Death Watch' after these important messages." As a commercial for a feminine expectorant rolled, Carole Versa apologized to members of the press. "Sorry we don't have a more prominent celebrity today," she said. "But it's not as though you can order celebrity deaths like moo goo gai pan. "Ideally, we like to feature declining moments with icons from motion pictures and entertainment. Our research shows audiences respond most favorably to them, followed by sports heroes and politicians. Majordomos of business, and authors might rank somewhat lower. "On a slow day like this one, we sometimes have to scramble even to locate the Mrs. Bugbees. Fortunately we can always count on our reliable stringers from 'American Insider' who will put us on to the imminent demisings of minor celebs, or relatives of people like Eli Branch. "As you know, Branch is wary of the media. It will be interesting to see how he responds to today's coverage." Versa was asked about critics' concerns over the intrusive nature of "Celebrity Death Watch." "You can't intrude on celebrities," she said. "They belong to everyone like the air we breathe. We consider this program a logical extension of the news. It's a service that teaches us and our children about the dying process. Death, after all, comes to kahunas and peons alike." She smiled. Our attention returned to the screen, and Dixon McTavish chatted with field reporter Elisha Robotham, who parted her thin black veil and spoke quietly about the soon-to-be-late Mrs. Bugbee. "Dixon, though most Americans know nothing about Avril Bugbee, I've discovered she lived a truly remarkable life. And by the time the show is over, viewers will have learned a great deal about how she raised her son, Eli Branch, and what she thought about Slyva Scompigliare, the young actress responsible for breaking up Mr. Branch's marriage to Sharon Shields Branch, who later committed suicide. Back to you, Dixon." Dixon McTavish thanked Ms. Robotham, and introduced Ralph Lawrence Howard, former dean of the school of journalism at Columbia, who left higher education to become chief correspondent for "Celebrity Death Watch." Dr. Howard, hovering outside Mrs. Bugbee's room, thrust a microphone toward a nurse, asking her how long she thought Mrs. Bugbee could hold on. The nurse crimsoned, and hurried away. Whereupon Howard attempted to interview one of Mrs. Bugbee's young grandsons, who told him, "Grandma is real sick," before an adult grabbed the child and pulled him from view. Back in the screening room, Carole Versa was telling our man that she understood the nurse's hesitance. "This is new for everybody," she said. "Hospital personnel aren't used to it yet. But as time passes, it'll be more or less routine, and we'll have less difficulty getting full cooperation." On camera, Howard was bantering with the anchor, saying, "'O death where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling,' hey Dixon?" "'O grave, thy victory?'" returned McTavish, continuing, "'The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling, For you but not for me.' At least not this time, not for us, thank God. And thank you, Dr. Ralph Lawrence Howard. Stay with us, folks. We'll be back in a moment, with a roster of household names likely to be expiring on our show in the days and weeks ahead. You're watching 'Celebrity Death Watch' on the American Insider Television Network."© 2002 by Michael Fedo. All rights reserved.