A silver lining in the 'reality' cloud

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- For anyone who has endured CBS News correspondent Julie Chen's infomercial phoniness on "Big Brother," this is probably going to be a difficult proposition to entertain for even a moment. But here it is:

Something very promising appears to be developing alongside, or possibly as a byproduct of, the success of "reality" shows featuring people eating rats on South Pacific islands.

Such silliness is opening the prime-time door to what may be some of the most serious and compelling nonfiction filmmaking since the days of Edward R. Murrow's "CBS Reports" -- a time often considered to be a golden age of the television documentary.

The key to understanding this unexpected piece of good is in the word "reality." There's reality television, and then there's "real" reality. The difference is huge.

Phyllis McGrady, the senior vice president of special programming for ABC News, made the distinction last week in discussing "Hopkins 24 / 7," a six-hour, prime-time documentary on Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Medical Center that will premiere Aug. 30. With unprecedented access, a crew of 25 ABC staffers spent almost four months last year inside the world-renowned hospital trying to capture what McGrady termed its "inner culture."

"This is the true reality TV. We didn't build a home or create a situation. This is the real 'Real World,' " McGrady said, referring to CBS' "Big Brother" and "Survivor," as well as MTV's "Real World," which was the first series to throw a group of strangers together in an artificial environment so we could watch them try to get along.

McGrady's words were echoed just a few days later by Gail Berman, the new entertainment president for the Fox Broadcasting Co., as she talked about a 13-hour documentary on life in an Illinois high school, "American High," set to debut Aug. 2 on Fox.

"This project began last summer before anyone was voted off an island," Berman said.

"The documentary-makers followed high school students through the entire school year. They gave them their own cameras to document their lives. This is the real 'Real World.' No false settings, no contrived situations. This is a type of reality programming that can be enlightening as well as entertaining," she added. And this is Fox we're talking about, the network that only a few months ago gave us "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" as its version of reality television.

Really real

These are major commitments by two commercial networks to serious nonfiction television -- the kinds of projects that win Pulitzer Prizes for newspapers. The executive producer of "American High" is R.J. Cutler, who received an Academy Award nomination for a 1993 documentary, "The War Room," which chronicled life backstage in Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. Cutler also received an Emmy nomination in 1995 for "A Perfect Candidate," which followed Oliver North's unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate.

"This is the work of a real documentarian, and we're particularly proud of it," said Berman, who is responsible for developing such entertainment hits as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

"But I have to tell you that when I first saw 'American High' just after getting here, they asked me what I thought, and I said, 'Well, if I had been here [when Cutler delivered it to Fox], I might have [edited] it differently.'

"And everybody said to me, 'No, no, you don't understand, Gail. You don't cut his work. He's a very serious documentarian. He gives you his documentary and you either air or you don't air it. But you don't change it,'" Berman said.

The commitment to serious nonfiction television appears to be even higher for ABC's "Hopkins 24 / 7."

"This might sound like a promo, but I don't mean it to be. This has never been done in the history of television -- that a network has done this kind of coverage at a hospital," said Richard Chisolm, the Emmy Award-winning Baltimore cinematographer who served as director of photography on the documentary.

"And it's never been done in the history of Johns Hopkins Hospital that a television network has been allowed in for this kind of depth. I mean, we were allowed to go almost anywhere for four months. It was unbelievable," he said.

"So, you have these two things that are historically unprecedented that came about as a result of the vision of Phyllis McGrady who, along with the producers, was able to protect the integrity of that vision through the filming," Chisolm added. "And I think that the documentary is going to be really powerful."

More documentaries coming

Nor are these the only two documentary projects getting prime-time commitments these days.

HBO and Miramax last week announced a 13-week documentary chronicling the making of an independent film. Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris Moore ("American Pie") will produce the project, which will include soliciting scripts over the Internet for an independent film, and then simultaneously making the film and the 13-part reality series about the making of it. Miramax will release the film in theaters, while HBO will air the documentary.

Pat Mitchell, the new president of PBS, said last week she plans to revisit the 1973 PBS documentary "An American Family," which tracked the Loud family for a year. Mitchell plans to use the formula to chronicle the lives of several American families that are more representative of the country today. Mitchell cited the success of "Survivor" in reminding critics that PBS was "into reality" before almost anyone else.

And ABC last week announced a two-hour prime-time documentary, "Combat Cameramen of World War II," to be produced by Steven Spielberg for premiere on Dec. 7.

But we can't overstate the good news. Even amid such announcements, NBC was saying last week that it's negotiating for a reality show in which a woman is chained to four potential suitors whom she must throw off one by one until taking the last as her mate.

Both McGrady and Berman used the word "experiment" in describing their major, long-form, prime-time documentaries. Both said network brass will be watching carefully to see how they perform. Low ratings could spell the end of the experiment.

An uncertain fate

Chisolm, who has spent more than two decades at the forefront of nonfiction filmmaking, is also guarded in his optimism.

"I'm so torn about the idealistic, optimistic feeling that I have about a project like 'Hopkins 24 / 7' getting this kind of network commitment. It's one of the most wonderful projects I've ever worked on in my life.

"But on other days, I become cynical and think what's happening is just another oscillation of the market crying out for something that's working like a formula. You know and I know that nonfiction programming of almost any kind is cheaper to produce than fiction programming, and maybe that's the story."

It is the story to a large extent.

By documentary standards, "Hopkins 24 / 7" was a risky and potentially costly project. Chisolm says it was a month before the crew started to feel as if it was getting at the inner culture of institution. What if they had spent a month, and then con- cluded the project wasn't going to work.

While it might seem like the cost of 25 crew members for a month would have meant a huge financial loss for ABC, it's peanuts by the standards of prime-time network television where the six stars of NBC's "Friends" each make $750,000 an episode and the network still turns a profit on that half-hour each week.

Money is almost always the story in television -- especially in this era of convergence and ever-increasing corporatization of the media. But that doesn't automatically preclude anything good from happening.

"Even if the prime-time door to nonfiction programming gets opened for the wrong reasons -- it's cheaper to produce or it's prurient subject-driven or whatever -- what's important is that the door is getting opened," Chisolm said.

"And it's getting opened for serious filmmakers who maybe can get more meaningful work shown to a larger, prime-time audience. And maybe that can make a difference. Maybe, just maybe."

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