It might not seem so tough, making a documentary about Johns Hopkins Hospital.
But ABC news producer Terry Wrong says putting together "Hopkins 24/7" was more like covering the Persian Gulf war or the Lebanese civil war than anything he's experienced since returning to the United States in 1995, after more than a decade working in Beirut, Jerusalem and Frankfurt for ABC News.
"When you go into the field on stories like the gulf war, you end up in a hotel room with a dozen cameramen and a half dozen producers and you're living this existence of the story. You're all racing out trying to cover everything, and [as a producer] you have to think quickly and deploy people," said Wrong, 43, one of two producers supervising the operation in Baltimore.
"And the closest I've come to experiencing that since returning to the States is this project. It was like running a foreign bureau on a major story. We had beepers for the different units we were staked out in, like the E.R., so that if [a major trauma case] came in, the beeper would go off and we'd scramble a crew and respond. We had beepers for the neo-natal intensive care unit, the pediatric intensive care unit, etc."
The filming of "Hopkins 24/7" involved 25 staffers who, for three months last fall, followed doctors and patients into places reporters had never been allowed to go. ABC senior vice president for special projects, Phyllis McGrady, hatched the idea after looking at non-fiction TV abroad.
"She was aware of shows on hospitals being done in Australia and England, and she was also aware that there was a lot of viewer interest in them," said Wrong. "And, so, she started looking at and thinking about what the interest to the American public might be in a series just about a hospital. A real documentary series that could penetrate deeply enough so you really felt you got to know the doctors as characters."
One of the great truths of television journalism is that the camera changes everything. One of the great goals of "Hopkins 24/7," was to challenge that truth.
"Would the drama of a hospital and the kinds of situations that occur there - life and death, doctors getting involved in their cases, the kinds of things you actually see in television dramas - is that something that could be captured in reality?" Wrong said. "We didn't know, but we felt that our best chance at doing that would be to be as unobtrusive as possible."
The ABC team was helped by the advent of a new, high quality digital camera by Sony. "The version we used, the PD-100, was at the time literally right out of the Sony factory," Wrong said. The PD-100 was the size of a fist but produced pictures of higher quality than large TV cameras. The digi-cams were so new they had never been used in network news, said Wrong. One of the places they had been pioneered in their earliest form was on the NBC drama "Homicide: Life on the Street," which was filmed in Baltimore.
"The question was: If our people were there three months straight, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, working the hospital by beat - you know, dividing the units up by oncology, neurology, E.R., pediatrics, the intensive care unit - would we develop relationships with the doctors that were close enough so that they would stop really noticing us, and just go about their business?
"Because what you're always aware of, obviously, when you have TV cameras and large crews, is the stilted nature of the reality you're capturing by the very fact that your presence is impinging on it. But [because of the new cameras], we thought we could get beyond that, and so we decided to give it a go."
Now all they needed was a hospital willing to let them in.
Wrong says Severn Sandt, who served as co-ordinating producer, visited a half-dozen or so hospitals and recommended Hopkins, because it offered the most access. Then Wrong and several other members of the McGrady special projects unit began conversations with Hopkins that he compared to Middle East peace negotiations.
The conversations were complicated by a number of issues: patients' privacy, confidentiality, doctors' rights, staff concerns, terms of access and liability, among others. "In the end, what outweighed everything, though, I think was the positive gut instinct on both sides," Wrong said.
And, so, the ABC team arrived at Hopkins at the end of September, taking up residence in an administrative building room that came to be known among the photographers, technicians and producers as the Bureau.
"At one point, we had up to eight cameras rolling nonstop around the hospital, producing up to 20 hours of footage a day, which is a huge amount of footage to wade through. We wound up with over a 1,000 hours to make the six that will air on the network," Wrong said.
The normal ratio of hours filmed to hours on air is 30 or 40 to 1, according to Richard Chisolm, the Emmy-award winning cinematographer who served as director of photogrpahy on the project. But there was nothing normal about this project.
As Wrong, co-producer Peter Bull and the crews were responding to life and death moments signaled by the beepers, they were developing more complex story lines that would power the documentary's drama.
"We were also following stories long-term, patient stories that had what we thought was a good arc, very important. Stories that had a beginning, middle and end where some kind of problem presented itself with the patient's admission, was diagnosed and hopefully resolved. And we were following certain doctors long-term, too. So, it was 24 hours a day."
Wrong and Bull spent most of their evenings screening the 20 hours of tape shot during the day, looking for the best moments, trying to decide which stories were working, which should be dropped.
Wrong's task was made all the more difficult by his own health problems. During his second week at Hopkins, he herniated a disc in his back, causing numbness in his left leg and palsy in his left foot.
"It was a nightmare. It was unbelievable," he said. "And they wanted to operate on me right away at Hopkins."
But Wrong turned down the neurosurgeons. "I was just damned if my body was going to knock me off this story," he said. "So, I was on some painkillers and steroids, and I lay on the floor with a small screening machine, and would screen the tapes every night. I was known as the prostrate producer."
Wrong said that working with the Hopkins staff involved nearly daily negotiations during the first month or two.
"There were times when people on the staff were concerned. There were times we needed to clarify why we had gone to a certain place to begin with, why we were there, what we were after. So, whenever there would be an incident of some kind - and there was never any major horrible gaffe or snafu - we would meet and talk about it and address the concerns of the person [from Hopkins] who called in."
Wrong says he's excited about what was accomplished in post-production. The tape was shot in the cinema verite style of Frederic Wiseman. The producers and editors then added the narration of ABC correspondent Sylvia Chase to pick up the pace for a television audience.
"What's the definition of poetry? Emotion recollected in tranquility?" Wrong says, quoting William Wordsworth.
"What we're doing is we're having the doctors recollect in tranquility on the scenes that we saw them in. So, they then, after the fact, give us the range of their thoughts and emotions about what they experienced. They put it in context. So, it's their voice that's ultimately heard."