LOS ANGELES -- In one of its largest prime-time commitments to documentary programming ever, ABC will air a six-hour film on Baltimore's Johns Hopkins medical center for six weeks starting next month.
"Hopkins 24/7," a cinema-verite-style journey through the institution, will debut Aug. 30, with a second hour airing Aug. 31 in a showcase time period right after "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." The other four hours will air Sept. 6, 13, 20 and 27. Each night's episode runs from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m.
"It's a very important project for us," Phyllis McGrady, ABC News vice president in charge of special programming, said yesterday in a telephone interview. "It's very hard to get a commitment like this from a network."
The documentary - which features hand-held cameras, minimal narration and no on-camera correspondents - is the result of unprecedented access Hopkins gave to ABC News in September through December last year.
"Academic medical centers have done a lot of whining, with validity, that no one knows what we do," said Joann Rodgers, the medical institution's media director, who coordinated Hopkins' involvement with the project. "I said, 'How can we continue to make that claim if we don't throw open the doors and tell our story?'"
Rodgers found a sympathetic audience for her argument: medical administrators, professors and staff, long besieged with complaints of high bills, high tuition for med students and brusque care, were willing to take a chance by giving the TV crew almost carte blanche to roam hospital corridors.
An ABC News team of 25 people worked from an office in the famed Hopkins Dome around the clock for more than three months, following doctors, nurses and patients.
"It was like nothing that's ever happened at Hopkins in the 30 years I've been here," said Dr. George J. Dover, Hopkins' chief of pediatrics. Like everyone else at Hopkins, he won't see the documentary until it airs on national television.
"We're sort of sitting here, holding our breath," Dover said yesterday.
A highlight reel of the documentary made available to The Sun takes the viewer on a riveting, gritty, roller coaster ride. It feels as if you are journeying through a series of turns and tunnels linked directly to life and death. You move from a dark night in the E.R. where a doctor loses two patients in a row and begins to crack to the considerable lighter moment when a 180-pound sea turtle is brought in from the National Aquarium with a mysterious disease.
The first hour includes a harrowing segment in which a 27- year-old female doctor discovers that she had been exposed to HIV-infected blood. The second hour features Dr. Edward Corwell, chief of trauma surgery, as "he patches up the wounded of Baltimore's endless street wars," in the words of the videotape provided to The Sun.
Based on the highlight reel, the documentary does not pull punches when it puts Hopkins, recently voted the best hospital in America for the 10th straight year by U.S. News & World Report, within the culture of the city.
"Just outside the walls of this world-renowned institution is a community in crisis," the highlight reel says. "We take you onto the streets of Baltimore, a city regarded among the most violent in the country."
Other segments include vignettes about: a doctor who quits after seven years in medical school; a doctor trying to save a young girl stricken with uterine cancer, a condition he thinks might have been worsened by delays on the part of her HMO; a doctor removing one-half of a child's brain in an effort to save her life.
Viewers will also see deaf patients awakening to sound for the first time thanks to microchips implanted in their scalps, go behind the closed doors of a psychiatric unit to hear anoxeric young women confide in their therapists, and eavesdrop on the "Mortality and Morbidity" conference in which doctors' mistakes are discussed and critiqued.
"This was a risky kind of thing for us, spending 3 1/2 months at Hopkins, but we had to spend that kind of time to get at the inner culture of the insititution," McGrady said. "It's also risky for the hospital. Fortunately, we think the documentary will justify the risk when viewers see it."
Sun television writer David Folkenflik contributed to this article.