On TV, it's life and times lite; Biographies are everywhere on cable these days, and maybe that's too much of a good thing; TELEVISION


Has your biography aired on television yet? No? That's odd. Well, probably it will be on this season. Definitely no later than next season.

Ridiculous, you say? There's hardly anything notable about little old you; nobody could possibly be interested in your story.

If that's your view, you must not have cable. Surf the channels these days, and you can't help stumbling on a biography of somebody somewhere. At least a dozen cable networks broadcast biography shows, and more pop up all the time. Even the networks are getting into the act, devoting ever bigger portions of their magazine shows to profiles.

And with so much air time to fill, a somebody doesn't have to be much of a somebody to warrant a televised biography. It doesn't have to be, say, Julius Caesar or Albert Einstein or Nelson Mandela. It doesn't even have to be Howard Cosell or Andre the Giant or Raquel Welch.

It might be, for instance, Milli Vanilli. Or Bobby Fuller. Or Nick Adams.

Who are they?


Even in their day, those particular figures occupied a fairly low rung on the ladder of significance. But fame and importance are only two criteria for television biographies, and not always the most salient ones. This is television, after all. What good is being accomplished if there's nothing on film?

This being the end of the 20th century, though, there's a good chance there is footage. Then comes a checklist of other desirable features: Will the story have tragedy or controversy? Is there sex or scandal? Is there -- and this is like striking gold for some cable networks -- an untimely death?

Given those criteria, the characters mentioned above offered sure-fire material for a televised biography. Milli Vanilli was the pop duo disgraced when it was revealed that they didn't do their own singing. Their story was one of the earliest told on VH1's most successful series, "Behind the Music." Fuller was a one-hit ("I Fought the Law and the Law Won") rock and roll singer from the early '60s, and Adams was briefly a TV star ("The Rebel") from the same period. Both died young and somewhat suspiciously. More than 30 years later, that made them perfect fodder for E!'s intentionally cheesy "Mysteries and Scandals," one of the network's three(!) biography series.

See? Sooner or later, seemingly everyone ends up with a television biography. Cable makes Andy Warhol look even more brilliant. Not only do you get your original 15 minutes of fame, but years later, you get another hour, and that's not taking reruns into account. In that way, television biographies are fame reclamation projects.

Good career move

Just look at lounge singer Tony Orlando, who enjoyed a transitory period of popularity in the 1970s and then disappeared. A little more than a year ago, he was existing at the outer fringes of show business, performing in Branson, Mo. Then VH1 did his story, and Orlando had a career revival.

Sold-out concerts, performances on Broadway and in Las Vegas, a new CD, a book deal. "Because of 'Behind the Music,' there has been this clamoring to see him," says Orlando's publicist, Rob Wilcox.

With so much biography on television -- there are roughly 20 shows now airing -- about figures both great and not so great, it can seem that all perspective has disappeared.

"It can destroy any sense of proportion," says Ron Chernow, who writes biographies, including award-winning books on John D. Rockefeller Jr., and the dynastic Morgan and Warburg families. "It can raise everyone to the same level or flatten them down to the same level. Everyone gets the same time, whether it's a 23-year-old model or Winston Churchill."

Nevertheless, Chernow isn't surprised television has taken so enthusiastically to the biographical format. "There is a society-wide fascination with celebrity," he says. "You see it in book publishing, magazine, radio, wherever you turn. It's the nature of modern celebrity, the more they see, the more they want. You'd think they'd get tired of it, but through a perverse logic, they want more."

Or as Jonathan Rieber, vice president of programming for E!, says more simply but more ardently: "There is an insatiable appetite for biography programming."

It's easy to see why. Biographies are relatively cheap to produce by television standards. An hourlong biography usually costs in the low six figures and, depending on production values, is often even cheaper. For viewers, even the worst of them is watchable. In a complex, confusing world, biographies lend themselves to comprehensible story-telling. They proceed chronologically. They have a beginning, a middle and an end.

"We all like good stories," says A. Scott Berg, whose biography of Charles Lindbergh won a Pulitzer Prize this year. "We all like personal dramas."

A&E; originated the species on cable with "Biography," which premiered as a weekly in 1987 and immediately established itself as the network's most popular series. In 1994, A&E; expanded the show to five nights a week; two years later, to seven nights. It's still the network's most successful series.

It didn't take long for the rest of the basic cable universe to notice and imitate. Not only have E! and VH-1 joined in the biography business, but C-Span, Lifetime, Bravo, CNN, ESPN, MTV, CMT, BET, TNN and MSNBC are either already airing biographies or have plans to start. As with A&E;, many networks are realizing their best ratings in their biography shows.

"It's both flattering and irritating," says Michael Cascio, senior vice president for programming at A&E.;

The shows vary in quality and sophistication. Some are insightful and illuminating. Most are not, but that hardly seems to matter.

"We tell the story you didn't know," says VH1's George Moll. That's not a very high threshold. An hourlong show about anyone is bound to tell most viewers more than they knew.

True to form

Watching one television biography after another, it doesn't take long to recognize the favorite approaches. The most frequent theme is overcoming -- or buckling under -- hardship: bad parents, poverty, death of loved ones, poor reviews, debts. Pathos is a pronounced feature, often to the point of ridiculousness.

For example, in its "Behind the Music" segment on a heavy metal band renowned for excessive behavior, the narrator gravely intones, "Amid the mayhem, Metallica endured its share of hardship and tragedy." The script makes sense for Kosovar refugees, but the subjects at hand are four self-styled miscreants who boast about regularly drinking themselves into unconsciousness.

It's hard to tell if the filmmakers are parodying the form. You figure they must be when an agent for the band appears on screen and proclaims with deadly seriousness: "Metallica was the answer to America's prayers."

Such hyperbole is a staple of many TV biographies, if for no other reason than to justify the attention given their particular subjects. For instance, Lifetime's documentary on the late Jacqueline Susann doesn't merely portray her as the author of best-selling pulp fiction, it proclaims that she "will be forever remembered as the most fabulous and flamboyant writer of American letters." (It's not that the filmmakers forgot about Truman Capote. They quote him dismissing Susann as more typist than writer.)

Lifetime is usually adoring in its profiles, which it suggestively calls "Intimate Portraits." In its biography of singer-actress Queen Latifah, the narrator says lovingly, "Giving back is a phrase Latifah takes to heart" and "Latifah's mission is to be a source of restoration." Like many other TV biographies, the show isn't much more than a promotion. There is no attempt to seriously evaluate Latifah's artistic talent.

At least on E!, many of the profiles are obviously tongue-in cheek. This is particularly true of the tabloidesque series "Mysteries and Scandal," whose host, A.J. Benza, is often pictured walking along foggy streets offering hard-boiled commentary.

In the Nick Adams segment, for example, Benza observes that the actor "went from being a kid in a mining town to a stiff in Tinseltown." When Adams' son, in an "exclusive interview," earnestly says that his parents had been in love, Benza acidly retorts, "Well, we've heard that one before."

The purple language on E! is often hilarious. As a flimsy show about Lindbergh nears the end of the pilot's life, Benza says: "It was clear to everyone that the aviator was coming in for his final landing."

The question is whether these shows constitute actual biography or simply a recitation of facts sometimes dressed up in psychological hokum. On that score, A&E; tries to distance itself from its imitators.

"In our humble opinion, ours are more definitive and more true to the form," says Cascio. "A lot of these shows are biographical but not biography. 'Biography' is meant to be pretty much soup to nuts. You were born. Here's your life, here are the influences on your life and if you're gone, here's the legacy of your life."

At its best, he's right about "Biography." A&E;'s two-hour biography of Pablo Picasso, for example, is a serious and thoughtful examination of the artist's life and work. While it doesn't shy away from Picasso's many affairs, the documentary convincingly shows how those entanglements informed his work.

Inquiry or exploitation?

Peter Jones, an independent producer whose company makes about 15 A&E; biographies a year, says there's a fine line between sincere inquiry and exploitation. "You can explore a person's travails, and that's part of what we do, but first and foremost, these biographies should be about the person's talent, which fascinated us in the first place," he says. "When you do their personal lives, it is to show how that informed their art. It's not just a series of twisted addictions and screwed-up relationships."

On the other hand, Jones says he understands the viewers are not always so high-minded. "I know there's another side to the audience fascination, people with no inner core themselves who are voyeurs and live their lives through the prurient side of celebrity."

Although "Biography" clearly sees itself as the gold standard of cable biographies, it is far from selective in its subjects. A recent week was devoted to television talk show hosts such as Sally Jesse Raphael and Jerry Springer.

Cascio doesn't apologize for the variety and dismisses Chernow's worries about the loss of perspective. "The viewer knows the difference between a 30-year-old actress and Julius Caesar," he says. "One is intended to be ephemeral and the other weightier. But people are interested in both."

And both, he insists, are worthwhile. Some biographies are inspiring, some just plain interesting. "Sometimes you learn what you didn't know. You end up with a different perspective on someone's life and maybe even on your own. And sometimes, it's just a crackling good story, and there's nothing wrong with that."

For the record, A&E;'s most-watched biography to date was about Hollywood director Ron Howard, who as a child played Opie on "The Andy Griffith Show." Aired last month, it was seen in nearly 3.5 million households. A&E;'s previous highest-rated shows were on the late wrestler/actor Andre the Giant and TV's Ozzie and Harriet.

Some of the writers of book-length biographies admit to being as captivated by the televised biographies as anyone. Many of them appear on these shows as experts (usually unpaid).

"They're a lot of fun," says Richard Reeves, who has written biographies of John F. Kennedy and others.

And as book writers are quick to point out, television isn't the only medium guilty of shallowness and salaciousness. "Look how many really cheesy [written] biographies come out that deal only in gossip and slander and bedroom goings-on," says Sam Tanenhaus, who wrote a Whittaker Chambers biography. "They're worse in a way because they pose as serious works."

Still, those who write biographies see big differences between what they do and what appears on TV. "It's kind of like playing a nice game of catch vs. playing in the World Series," says Reeves, who has worked in print and television.

Time is of the essence

Time and research are the main distinction. Cable biographers are rarely allowed more than a few months to make their documentaries. Berg, by contrast, spent nearly 10 years on his Lindbergh book.

The best biographers explore the inner lives of their subjects, typically making use of archives, letters and records. But as Reeves says, television biographers, operating on tight budgets and tight schedules, typically build their stories around visual images. "Usually, it's not really the story of a life but of the photographed parts of a life." he says. "It's a biography of the available."

With less time and research, televised biographies are necessarily shallow. "In the space of a book that takes many years to write and several hundred pages to read, the biographers have time to explore subtleties," says Chernow.

That said, some biography writers often find themselves impressed by how much infor- mation television can get into a short amount of time. And they see value in that effort, because it often leads people to turn to their books for a deeper understanding of a particular subject.

"I don't look at them as rivals," says Berg. "I consider them supplementary, in some ways, complementary. I consider them appetizers and hope that viewers will consider having the whole meal."

And even if viewers don't turn to written biographies, the televised versions are still exposing a mass audience to information they might otherwise never receive.

"I wouldn't call most of this stuff on television history or biography," says Reeves. "A lot of it is psychobabble and psychohistory. But it also democratizes information that was once only within reach of an elite. The masses may be getting a different kind of information, but they're still learning something. If some kid decides to become a scientist because he watched a semi-documentary on Robert Oppenheimer, that's to the good, isn't it?"

Which raises a troubling question: What if the kid happened to see the Metallica biography instead?

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