When UFO Cover-Up? Live! aired on October 14, 1988, to audiences on 130 syndicated stations throughout the United States, it was supposed to reveal the startling truth about a secret government program responsible for covering up the existence of extraterrestrial life. Instead, it would set the field of UFO research back decades.

At the time, it was not clear who was at fault for the show’s failure. The show’s guests, including some of the biggest names in the field of ufology, pointed fingers at the producers, the producers blamed each other, and UFO researchers the government. The show would eventually fade from memory but not before contributing to a bitter divide in the UFO community. Less than a year after its airing a figure involved in UFO Cover-Up? Live!’s production would admit publicly that he had worked for the government spreading disinformation. Ufologists and researchers began turning on each other and the paranoia arising from the split gave birth to the first popular anti-government conspiracy theories. Ground zero in our modern American mindfuck.

The question at the heart of UFO-Cover-Up? Live! was simple: has the government covered up the existence of UFOs? The startling truth is that the production may have been much closer to an answer than any of its participants may have realized.

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Disclosure is a term used by UFO researchers to describe a government declassifying information about extraterrestrial life, and it has tormented them since 1947, when the subject of UFOs first crashed into the American imagination. That year, a pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing an unusual light in the sky. Two weeks later an object of some kind crashed in the desert just outside of Roswell, New Mexico. Reports of UFOs soon spread. Between 1952 and 1969, the government’s official program for the study of UFO phenomena, Project Blue Book, logged 12,618 sightings. The government would even commission two studies on the subject, the Robertson Panel and the Condon Committee.

The problem with looking to the government for answers has been that, historically, it has never had any. When the United States Air Force terminated Blue Book in 1969, it stated in its summary of findings that “[t]here has been no evidence indicating the sightings categorized as ‘unidentified’ are extraterrestrial vehicles.”

Government-backed panels and committees have also been notoriously hostile to the idea of otherworldly visitors. Condon Committee head Edward Condon argued in the group’s final report that “[c]areful consideration of the record as it is available to us leads us to conclude that further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby.”

It would seem that every time the UFO community is on the brink of disclosure—a new committee formed, another report announced—the government rips it away. Yet ufologists continue to hold out hope. Is disclosure coming?

In 2017 another opportunity descended from the heavens above. In December, the New York Times reported that the Defense Intelligence Agency had tasked a covert group with researching UFOs (now called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, or UAP) between 2007 and 2012. The announcement generated renewed interest in the UFO question and further studies and reports ensued. There even appeared a glimmer of hope in the government’s research. “In a limited number of incidents, UAP reportedly appeared to exhibit unusual flight characteristics,” read a section of a nine-page report issued in June 2021 by the Director of National Intelligence.

Unfortunately, this too would be a dead-end. The report went on to state that most of the observations of unexplained phenomena were “sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception.” Once again, the government presented the possibility of disclosure only to take it back at the last possible moment. But this latest setback raised a number of questions. Why would the government continue to research a subject it already debunked multiple times—and why would it continuously taunt a community already on edge, a group that grows ever more hostile with each new disappointment?

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UFO Cover-Up? Live! came together over the course of 1988. LBS Communications, a New York-based syndication company, had scored back-to-back hits in 1986 and 1987 with Geraldo Rivera’s The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults and the Telly Savalas-hosted Return to the Titanic: Live, television specials that used the lure of a big reveal to hook viewers. Both productions netted somewhere in the range of $6 million, and LBS sought to recreate that success with yet another formulaic live special structured around the revelation of a life-altering secret. UFO Cover-Up? Live! would be anything but.

The idea came from industrial designer Curtis Brubaker, who had worked as a special effects coordinator on a Project Blue Book inspired scripted series, Project U.F.O., in the 1970s. Brubaker pitched the series based on an early concept of exposing a government cover-up of UFOs from the perspective of outsiders. As he recalled in a 2021 telephone interview: “I was driving south on the 405 freeway [in Los Angeles], down to Laguna with my wife, and on the air, on the Michael Jackson Show—a British guy who had a talk show, not the singer—was Bill Moore and his buddy, Jaime Shandera. I listened carefully to all the stuff they were saying and told my wife, ‘If all this shit is going on, these abductions and all this stuff, somebody ought to file a lawsuit and take [the government] to court. We ought to get some expert witnesses and find out what the hell is really going on,’ because this is an invasion of Americans’ privacy.”

Bill Moore and Jaime Shandera

Brubaker recommended Tracy Tormé, a screenwriter who had worked on Saturday Night Live and Star Trek: The Next Generation, to produce a segment on UFO sightings in Gulf Breeze, Florida, which were still hot in the news after a local resident, Ed Walters, claimed to have photographic evidence of an encounter. Tormé put the show’s growing production team in contact with Bill Moore, a personal friend. “The reason Bill Moore got involved with UFO Cover-Up? Live! was that it was during the time when he was sharing a lot of his stuff with me,” said Tormé during a separate interview in May 2021. “Roswell was always something I’d been really interested in; he took me, actually, at one point with [him] and Jaime to the crash site at the Foster ranch, which was way before it was publicized.”

Moore was a superstar in the field of UFO research at the time. He appeared out of nowhere in 1980 when he put the city of Roswell, New Mexico on the star map with a best-seller, The Roswell Incident, co-authored with ex-Army intelligence officer Charles Berlitz. The book would make Roswell the center of America’s burgeoning UFO mythology, transforming it from a dying ex-military town into a perpetual tourist destination. It also ensured Moore’s commitment to esoteric subjects. Over the course of the ensuing decade he deepened his involvement in the UFO community by doing public appearances and publishing new material promoting the Roswell crash as a seminal historical event; thus, to outside observers Moore would have been the public face of the disclosure movement. So it would only make sense that he and Shandera would become the first guests brought on to the project.

With Moore and Shandera in tow, the production team started to develop Brubaker’s concept of a cover-up. But problems appeared from day one. LBS Communications’ original TV specials were produced by the team of John Joslyn and Doug Llewelyn, but the duo was already working on a follow-up to Return to the Titanic. This meant that the only returning member of either of the original specials was a low-level producer named Michael Seligman whose most notable production credit came working the Academy Awards. By all accounts, Seligman had no familiarity with the subject matter.

The production quickly became a revolving door of producers, writers, and personalities. Seligman hired Barry Taff, a former research assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles’ famed school of parapsychology, the Neuropsychiatric Institute, to write a treatment. Taff had no experience in live television. His only prior production credit was as a technical consultant on the supernatural sexual assault drama The Entity (1982), and his writing experience limited to penning articles for special-interest magazines like UFO Magazine.

Taff was hired because the Writers Guild of America was on strike. Tormé, an experienced writer with a background in live television, could not write for the show due to ongoing arbitration issues. “The project started up and they were constantly pressuring me to write,” Tormé remembered, “and I kept saying, ‘Guys, I’m not going to write on this, I’m on strike.’ That was all coming from Michael Seligman.”

The constant push-and-pull between Seligman and the rest of the crew bled into the content of the show. In Taff’s account of events, he only worked for Seligman for a matter of days. “I was indeed hired to write said show,” Taff stated, via electronic correspondence earlier this year, “but as I did not have any experience in writing in the format of TV news, I was let go very early on. Therefore, I had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the writing or production of that 2-hour show. As documentaries are not supposed to have writers, someone at the production company with a bad sense of humor threw my name into the matter.”

The chaotic nature of the production meant that UFO Cover-Up? Live! would veer wildly between subjects both serious and silly during production meetings. Tormé and Brubaker, both knowledgeable on the field of ufology either through prior experience or personal relationships with researchers, became so exasperated they decided to test the crew’s ability to sort fact from fiction.

“[Curtis] and I came up with a practical joke to prove a point,” Tormé remarked. “We came up with a bunch of silly symbols where there were supposed to be alien symbols. Some of those symbols were absolutely nonsensical stuff.”

It is unclear when UFO Cover-Up? Live! morphed from an expose on UFOs into a schlocky sci-fi talk show. Instances like the fake symbols might have contributed to the change in tone but the production was already moving away from the disclosure angle by the time of the prank. This was a conscious choice that came from above.

“There were mysterious meetings,” said Brubaker, who worked on the program as a supervising producer and its special effects chief. “Seligman would go off to some other state and meet people by a lake and take a boat out to an island. It sounded like a set-up to me. There was always this focused mystery set up around his meetings. I don’t know if they were real or what.” The meetings were arranged by an intelligence contact Bill Moore introduced to Seligman a few weeks into the production. According to Brubaker: “He came in a month or two downstream when, allegedly, we were approached by someone in the military with stuff they wanted to present.”

Tormé backed Brubaker’s account: “The material really started to freak [Michael Seligman] out. When he came back, he was so paranoid, and looking over his shoulder all the time.”

Oddly, at some point after UFO Cover-up? Live! aired, someone claiming to be Barry Taff posted an article to the UFOBBS, a UFO-focused bulletin board system, mimicking a recurring feature from UFO Magazine’s own Paranet BBS. Titled “UFO Cover-Up? Live!: The Untold Story”, the article offered insider secrets corroborating much of what Brubaker and Tormé would later claim, with the most explosive charge being that an unnamed producer—who may or may not be Michael Seligman—sabotaged the production. It also confirmed interference by someone in the intelligence community, pointing to an unusual series of exchanges with the program’s consulting producer, Bob Emenegger. A portion of the article states: “Emenegger said he would talk to his sources about furnishing never-before-seen footage of a supposed UFO landing at Holloman Air Force Base. Tracking camera footage of a missile launch depicting a UFO paralleling the missile flight, was also, at one point, made available from another associate of Emenegger’s. Unfortunately, both of these potentially incredible pieces of film footage were ultimately withheld.”

Taff denied writing the article, although he did write for UFO Magazine in the same period. Based on other information found in the article, such as oddly specific items about the show’s production budget and use of a script, only someone connected to the cast or crew could have such a thorough knowledge of the behind-the-scenes goings-on.

This air of mystery plagued UFO Cover-Up? Live! more generally. As it neared its airdate of October 14th, the production resembled little of Brubaker’s initial proposal. Instead of disclosing secrets, it was now shrouded in them. Why was there a shift in focus midway through production? And who was the mysterious intelligence operative?

NEXT TIME: Disinformation Makes the Man