Fatal attraction of a fast buck: Teenager Amy Fisher shot her love rival and the TV networks made her a star. Now they are under fire for paying the wages of sin. David Usborne in Washington reports

AMERICA HAS a new media phenomenon. Her name is Amy Fisher and her exploits have been the subject of TV movies on all three networks, watched by almost a third of the country. There are no perfume or clothing lines bearing her name yet, but there is time for that.

Fisher is no ordinary sensation. She is not an actress or rock star, but a pathetic teenage criminal, serving time for a cruel attempted murder. Her appeal is that her crime combined all the ingredients to stir a nation's basest instincts: deceit, sex, wealth and gore.

Of the three television reconstructions, the one offered last Sunday by ABC, starring Drew Barrymore as the star-crossed Amy, surely carried the most apt title: Beyond Control: the Amy Fisher Story. That she flipped outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour is hardly at issue. But that the American tabloid media, the networks included, have followed her there, may be.

The true-story movie genre is not new. The case of 1950s killer Ed Gein was the inspiration for Psycho and, more recently, The Silence of the Lambs. And each television season brings a new crop of made-for-TV real-crime films. Never before, though, have all three US networks plunged in with different versions of the same story and completed them in such startling haste. Nor have those involved, including the perpetrator, been seen to make so much money out of it.

On 19 May last year, the then 17-year-old Amy Fisher went to the home in Massapequa, a tidy New York City suburb on Long Island's southern shore, of Mary Jo Buttafuoco, shot her in the back of the head and left her for dead. Mrs Buttafuoco survived, though with her hearing and sight impaired and a bullet lodged in her brain, and Miss Fisher was swiftly arrested.

She pleaded guilty to attempted murder in September and just over a month ago, on 1 December, was sentenced in a Nassau County court to between five and 15 years in prison.

Her youth aside, at first it seemed a fairly humdrum crime of passion. Fisher told investigators she had been having an affair with Mrs Buttafuoco's husband, Joey, a beefy car mechanic 20 years her senior, and that he had encouraged her to kill his wife. Gradually, though, the story unfolded in a way that made it irresistible, first to the tabloid newspapers of New York, then to the Hollywood scouts.

The line between the ordinary and the sensational was probably crossed when, in an early press conference, a Nassau County detective sergeant, Daniel Severin, threw out the line that the case looked like a 'near-Fatal Attraction', referring to the box-office mega-hit starring Michael Douglas, with Glenn Close as the femme fatale. Soon after that, the tabloids began to dub Fisher the 'Long Island Lolita'. The national media, and soon the public, were quickly hooked. The fascination was raised by Joey's fierce denial of an affair with Fisher.

The feeding-frenzy was started in earnest by A Current Affair, a syndicated television documentary series that specialises in sleaze and sensationalism. Pursuing revelations that Fisher had been working as a part-time prostitute for an escort service, the programme obtained a 14-minute videotape of her offering her services to a customer.

Before it could be broadcast on 1 June, the tape was poached by a competitor, Hard Copy, which put it on air first. Hard Copy was threatened with a dollars 1m lawsuit.

'It's got murder, it's got sex, it's got romance,' was the comment of one Hollywood agent, Ron Yatter, who was already exploring the possibilities of a quickie television film. 'Anything that happens in this case immediately makes the front pages.'

The first network at the trough was NBC, when Fisher's lawyer, Eric Naiburg, suddenly recognised that his client's only hope of raising the record dollars 2m bail set for her release was in selling her only asset - her version of what happened. NBC - labelled last week as N-B-Sleaze by one prominent, disgusted critic - obliged by contributing part of the funds needed. The exact payment has not been disclosed.

Next came CBS, lured by the victim, Mary Jo, who had by then herself seen the opportunity for money-making, if only to help to settle hospital bills. She reportedly received about dollars 300,000 from the network in return for the rights to her story. ABC soon decided it too would have to embark on a film. It stayed away from the protagonists, however, employing instead a New York Post journalist as a consultant.

Next came the battle to be the first network to show an Amy Fisher movie once sentence was passed. NBC said it would air its film on 24 January, only to learn that ABC had plans to put out its version on 17 January. Not to be outdone, NBC rushed out Amy Fisher: My Story on 28 December. ABC, with Beyond Control, and CBS, with Casualties of Love: the 'Long Island Lolita' Story, clashed last Sunday.

Unsurprisingly, the three films offered notably different glosses on what drove Fisher to evil. NBC, with the rights to her story, had the blame heavily skewed towards the Buttafuoco family. CBS upheld Joey's story that he had never touched the teenager - which, unhappily for the network, ruled out any sex scenes. ABC laced its version with lots of sex.

The US edition of Time this week offers a witty comparison of the three offerings by means of a table. Across the top are the titles of the three films, and down the side the features that differentiated them so starkly. Thus, one item down the left is 'Amy is really just' . . . 'A spirited teen' (NBC), 'A sick twist' (CBS) or a 'Spoiled brat' (ABC). Joey is really just: 'A Long Island Lothario' (NBC), 'The Gandhi of grease-monkeys' (CBS) or 'An Italian rapscallion' (ABC).

The films and network executives have been lashed by media critics. They are accused not only of descending to the lowest common denominator for profit and ratings, but also of potentially encouraging others to believe that if they kill in lurid circumstances they will become stars.

It does not help that Fisher and Mr and Mrs Buttafuoco were still, even last week, appearing daily on prime-time television talk shows.

Ruth Slawson, a senior vice- president of NBC movies, says that to begin with she never expected Amy Fisher to get so big. 'I was stunned. I guess you could say Amy has become a cottage industry.' Among reasons she gives for the phenomenon are the sex- violence-romance mix, Fisher's youth, the location on Long Island, and the brief delay between the crime being committed and the sentencing, so that public interest never faded.

She, like others involved, including some of the actors, admits to some remorse. But the bottom line is revenue. With viewing figures running to 80 million, these were the most-watched 'faction' movies of this winter season.

'I think it's a really sad commentary about what people are interested in. It's crazy. It's self- perpetuating. We all say we don't want to keep on doing these true- crime movies, but then these numbers come in and what choice do we have?'

(Photograph omitted)

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