John Walsh is rallying America against the nation's bad guys again.
"America's Most Wanted," a Fox Broadcasting mainstay for 23 years before that network canceled it last spring, returns to weekly television at a new address: Lifetime, where it premieres Friday at 9 p.m. EST.
"It will be basically the same show," says Walsh, whose criminal roundup has led to the capture of more than 1,100 fugitives in the U.S. and 30 countries, plus the rescue of 61 children and missing persons — and counting.
Walsh says there will be no softening of the show's gritty, tough-guy tone in its new home, despite Lifetime being chiefly a channel aimed at women.
"It will still be tough enough for people sitting in their living rooms to say, 'My God, that happened to a real person, that's not a scripted drama,'" he says, "and then get off their couch and go to their phone if they recognize the fugitive, and do the right thing."
After "AMW" aired its last weekly episode on Fox last June, "people never stopped going to the website and calling the hotline, which amazed me," Walsh says. "We caught five guys." These included alleged child predator Kenneth Craig, who turned himself in to law enforcement in Brazil just days after watching himself being profiled on the show.
"I've told Lifetime, 'Most of the people we profile are cowards that have hurt women or children.' I think that's why Lifetime got it so much, and picked up the show," he says.
"I don't believe there's ever been a show that combines entertainment with public service in the way this show does, and its mission is something we believe in very deeply," says Rob Sharenow, Lifetime executive vice president of programming. "Public safety, keeping our streets safe, keeping our children safe is probably the issue of most importance to our viewers."
It was in 1981 that Walsh, now 65, launched his crime-busting crusade in the aftermath of the abduction and murder of his 6-year-old son Adam (who Walsh notes would have turned 37 last month).
The grieving father became an outspoken advocate for tougher laws against sex offenders, more cooperation among law enforcement agencies, and citizen involvement in flushing out fugitives.
Then his TV show premiered in April 1988 on the fledgling Fox network and, little more than a year later, was the first-ever Fox program to rank first in viewership in its time slot. It remained a fixture on the network after that, and during the 2010-11 season, was seen by an audience averaging 5 million viewers.
Last May, Fox announced it was axing the series because of high production costs. "AMW" remains on Fox with a greatly reduced presence — the first of four quarterly, two-hour specials aired recently. But the weekly push has relocated to Lifetime, which signed for 20 episodes, with an option for 44 more, according to Walsh.
Fox sibling company Twentieth Television, which owns "AMW," has licensed the show to Lifetime. Now Walsh's company produces it. Based in Washington, D.C., Walsh Productions has several other series pilots in the works that Walsh hopes will lead to the rehiring of many of the remaining 55 people (out of a total of 80) he couldn't restore to "AMW" on Lifetime.
"It was very, very difficult," he says, describing the process of laying off staffers last summer.
Now, after a tumultuous few months, Walsh resumes his tireless TV mission, and he hopes loyal viewers again will do their part.
"Will they come back after we were off for several months?" he muses. "Will they follow us to cable?"