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Television: The Art of Infidelity

Local producer Bobby Goldstein says his hit show Cheaters, which features people trying to catch their significant others in the act of infidelity, is everything George Orwell imagined in 1984 -- everybody able to see anything at any time. T
By Dan Michalski |

Who knew a show this sleazy would be ratings gold?  Bobby Goldstein did, and Cheaters proves it.

THE SHOW FIRST CAUGHT MY attention while I was flipping through channels in the wee hours. A married man who looked like Santa Claus in a guayabera shirt was standing in a 7-Eleven parking lot with his girlfriend, a stripper named Raven Heat. His wife of 30 years had just caught the couple together, and she asked who the young blonde was. “Uh, that’s my business associate,” the man said.

In another episode, one of my personal favorites, a man tried to wriggle out of a similar situation by pretending he was his own twin brother. Needless to say, I am now a huge fan of the show.

This is Cheaters, yet another contribution to the cameras-are-everywhere reality of reality TV, a show that busts careless lovers in the throes of infidelity, then airs the subsequent human wreckage for our viewing pleasure. As it happens, it’s also a show completely produced in and around Dallas.

The way it works: suspicious people invite Cheaters investigators to trail their significant others. The show’s host, Tommy Grand (played by actor Tommy Habeeb), then presents them with video proof of hanky-panky—anything from panties tossed onto a dashboard to hidden-camera footage of full-fledged, though blurred-out, fornication. For the denouement, Cheaters orchestrates a surprise confrontation in a parking lot or, say, a restaurant. If the action isn’t good enough for the cameras, Grand steps in to do a little sanctimonious needling: “For God’s sake, you should be ashamed of yourself.”

The admonition is appropriate on more than one level. It goes for the cheaters, sure. Perhaps even for the cheatees, too. But Grand may as well be talking to me, the guy getting his cheap thrills from the misery of others. And I’ve got plenty of company. Now in its third season, Cheaters is seen in some 190 markets across America and in more than a dozen foreign countries, from Albania to Zimbabwe. It’s become one of the highest ratings grabs for stations that air it. Here in Dallas, KDAF-TV Channel 33 airs the show on Mondays at 1 a.m., where it’s number one in “late-night fringe” programming with 18- to 49-year-olds. But on WWSB-TV in Tampa Bay, for example, Cheaters runs on Sundays at 7 p.m. Only Devil Rays baseball and ER draw better numbers for the station. Against competition in its time slot, Cheaters consistently beats 60 Minutes and Seinfeld reruns.

Last summer, Cheaters caught the attention of a New York Times arts writer, who called the show a “nightmare version of Candid Camera.” The writer went on, by way of explaining the show’s prurient appeal, to quote François La Rochefoucauld.

Leave it to the Times to turn to a 17th-century French moralist to explain why it’s entertaining to watch a man interrupt his girlfriend’s late-night poolside canoodling with another woman. Me, I just wanted to know why that girlfriend (and that girlfriend’s girlfriend) would sign a waiver and allow her tryst to find its way into syndication.

I also wanted to know if the strange rumors I’d heard about the show’s executive producer, Bobby Goldstein, were even partly true.

CHEATERS’ HEADQUARTERS ARE HIDDEN IN A nondescript one-story office park, past dingy warehouses, at the end of Manufacturing Street. Inside, Goldstein’s taste in décor is revealing. There are the more-or-less usual mementos pinned to his bulletin board: pictures of his three children, an autographed mug shot from Habeeb, a handmade card that says, “To B.B. I’m such a sorry bitch, please forgive me.” But on one wall hangs a 12-panel macro-photography series of a maggot eating an apple, a mantis eating the maggot, and a spider eating the mantis. Then there are three oil paintings, all by serial killers.

The centerpiece is a work he commissioned from John Wayne Gacy, America’s most infamous clown. It depicts a shadowy figure standing on a mountaintop. The figure holds a syringe, and that syringe is being struck by a bolt of lightning.

Goldstein himself is 5-foot-4, chubby, and balding (think George Costanza). He turns 45 this month. A letter on his desk from the State Bar of Texas, dated August 26, informs him that his law license has been indefinitely suspended for not continuing his legal education.

“I’m glad,” he says. “I don’t want that f—-ing license. I’d rather have a pap smear.”

Indeed, Goldstein says he got into law to escape the milk business. The grandson of dairy magnate Harmon Schepps, he says he also attended Baylor Law School as a form of drug rehab. His most notable accomplishment as a lawyer, apparently, was being sued for $100 million in a malpractice claim for allegedly mishandling a high-society divorce case. (His former client testified that Goldstein not only stole from her, but also made sexual advances. Goldstein says they settled “for almost no money.”) He says he created Cheaters to escape his law practice.

Goldstein admits that he himself was a cheater. He’s been married to his third wife for 15 years, but five years ago, he was afraid that she was having him tailed by a private investigator. That fear inspired Cheaters. A mutual friend introduced him to struggling actor Tommy Habeeb, and the two sketched out a “film noir, Mickey Spillane kind of thing” that would use real adultery investigations as storylines.

The show’s success has come, in large part, as a result of the controversy it has created. Goldstein has appeared on Entertainment Tonight, Dateline NBC, and The O’Reilly Factor to defend himself as more artist and televisionary than sleaze merchant profiting from misery he helps create.

“There’s a certain amount of exploitation,” Goldstein says. “If I said otherwise, I’d be a f—-ing liar.” But there’s more to Cheaters than just that, he says. “This is the future George Orwell described in 1984. It will necessarily be said that the highest and best use of television isn’t news and entertainment, but viewer omniscience and omnipresence—everybody able to see anything at any time.”

And he doesn’t stop with proclaiming the show the fulfillment of Orwell’s vision. “This is my little art,” Goldstein says. “My palette is experiences and expressions, man’s guts and emotions. It is a study of the human relationship. I am not the master of it. I am a student of it, just like the rest of the audience.”

But why would anyone volunteer to serve as Bobby Goldstein’s paint? The answer, it turns out, usually has more to do with commerce than art. Many complainants turn to Cheaters because they can’t afford an investigation on their own. (They sign an agreement stipulating that a change of heart about appearing on TV will leave them footing the bill for the investigation.)

And the cheaters? Goldstein says they are actually easier to convince than the complainants. “We let them cool off for a couple weeks, then tell them plainly, ’We want a release from you, we’ll pay you for it [usually about $1,000], and we’ll give you a chance to tell your side of the story [in a follow-up segment].’”

Their motivation is that simple, that depressingly ordinary. Jennifer McBride, the 24-year-old who was caught having the Sapphic pool party, says she signed the waiver in exchange for $200—and to one-up her now ex-boyfriend on television. Plus, she says, by the time the cameras show up, the worst is already over. “It’s already on film and it’s been seen by a lot of people, so why not?” she says. “I don’t understand why that’s such a big deal. At least I looked good.”

Still, not everyone is buying what Goldstein is selling. The show’s former Los Angeles-based distributor, Western International Syndication, dropped Cheaters after its second season. A company spokesperson would only say, “We’re no longer associated with them in any way anymore.” Goldstein says he “sought to be emancipated” from the deal because “Western did not recognize that Bobby Goldstein was an asset and not a liability.” Cheaters is now distributed by New York-based MG Perin.

Even Tommy Habeeb, the show’s co-creator and star, seems to have doubts about the endeavor. Shortly after the Western deal disintegrated, he and Goldstein severed their business partnership, with Habeeb staying on only as the show’s host.

“Just the other day,” Habeeb says, “Bobby called me and asked, ’How do you keep from cracking up with these people?’ Well, how am I going to laugh when someone just had their heart ripped out of their chest? They come to the show not knowing where to turn. I just  hope I’m doing something good by helping them find some answers.”

BACK IN GOLDSTEIN’S OFFICE, WE CHAT ABOUT the future of television, the benefits of clinical honesty in interpersonal relationships, the history of monogamy, and something about a cheetah stalking a gazelle. Finally, I find my own inner Tommy Grand and ask about the rumor.

I tell him that I heard he was having an affair with a woman in his office. Public records show that Goldstein owns this woman’s car and her Uptown condo. And a reporter for a national tabloid has been nosing around, looking to set Goldstein up for his own Cheaters-style ambush.

“I love that!” Goldstein says. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard! How great for ratings would that be?”

Goldstein then pulls from a shelf a 1962 issue of the men’s magazine True and begins making a photocopy of a feature story written by a medical doctor: “Polygamy: Prescription for the Good Life.”

“I’m a man that needs several wives,” he says in a semi-joking tone. “And two is just barely serving me enough.”

Our visit draws to an end, and I’m about to leave with my polygamy article, when Goldstein calls out to the subject of the rumor. “Come over here, kid,” he says to her. He pulls both of us into an unoccupied office and shuts the door. “You’re going to be in the story,” he tells the woman. “You’re going to be in there because I’m in there.”

“Oh,” she says, looking a bit confused. “Okay.”

“We’ve got them fooled, don’t we baby?” Goldstein continues, as he cups her chin in his hand. Then, in a bizarre admission of something, he leans in and begins kissing her—open mouth, medium passion. After a second of awkwardness, she closes her eyes and returns the kiss.

I’m not sure what I have just witnessed.

But if Bobby Goldstein is turning infidelity into art, then Cheaters might be his self-portrait.

Reporter Dan Michalski is a regular D Magazine contributor.