Getting on Famously TV: Despite several years of a daily demand to profile somebody worthwhile, A&E's 'Biography' has a lot of lives left in it.

April 17, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Were Andy Warhol alive today, he'd have to amend his oft-quoted line about how, in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.

Today, what he'd say is that everyone will be the subject of a "Biography."

How else can the folks at A&E hope to keep fresh a show that, even with repeats, has profiled more than 500 people? Are there really that many historical, entertainment and pop culture figures the American viewing public wants to know more about?

Already, the 10-year-old program, which has been running almost daily since May 1994, has had to delve into the realms of make-believe for biographies of Betty Boop, Santa Claus, Sherlock Holmes, Zoro, Tarzan and Madonna (who's mostly fiction, anyway).

It has mined the Bible (Noah, Jesus Christ, Adam & Eve), mythology (Hercules), the supernatural (Dracula) and every age of history, from Roman times (Julius Caesar) to the 1950s (Sid Caesar).

For the past two weeks, "Biography" has been paying tribute to its first decade with a greatest-hits collection promoted as "The Best Lives of Our Years." Although the package included two premieres (Leonardo da Vinci and F. Scott Fitzgerald), the emphasis has been on showcasing the series' range -- which is why the subjects have run the gamut from Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali to George Patton and Henry VIII (which airs at 8 tonight).

But won't the well run dry, forcing A&E to resort to documentaries on Stinky Smith, the big bully who bloodied your nose back in the third grade?

Not in this lifetime, insists Michael Cascio, the series' executive producer and the man who committed "Biography" to the daily grind three years ago.

When he first suggested the show change from weekly to daily, Cascio recalls from his New York office, "People said, 'You're going to run out of ideas.' But in one hour, I came up with 150 names, and we keep adding people to the list.

"We're in no danger of running out," he says, in the self-assured tone of a man who gambled successfully that the show would give A&E an identity, a cornerstone around which the rest of the cable channel's programming could be built.

"We were looking for something that would identity the network, xTC something that would bring viewers in on a daily basis," Cascio says.

"When there's 30 or 40 channels to pick from, we wanted something that would be identifiable with the network, something that would not only give you identity, but would be compatible with all the different kinds of programming we have on the network."

In that respect, "Biography" is doing just fine, thank you. For a channel designed to showcase myriad programs, in all areas of the arts, the series is one of the few constants. Six days a week (the show takes a break on Sundays), people know they can turn on "Biography" at 8 p.m.

And while ratings for the series vary (no surprise -- you know

more people are going to watch an hour about Princess Diana than an hour about Genghis Khan), they're never less than respectable.

Last week's profile of F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, had 2.5 million households watching; on average, "Biography" attracts about 1.7 million households -- not bad at all for cable TV.

"We're incredibly successful," says Cascio, "with programming that some would call high-brow programming."

High-brow? Not exactly, not when you consider some of the series' subjects, from Abbott & Costello to Florenz Ziegfeld. We've been introduced to the lives of Helen Gurley Brown, Jackie Chan, the Dionne Quintuplets, Pretty Boy Floyd and Lee Iacocca. We've looked at Ted Kaczynski, Rush Limbaugh, Masters & Johnson, Helena Rubinstein and Mike Tyson.

And not all the shows have been home runs. Although generally well-balanced, the shows occasionally lapse into over-adulation (Carol Burnett, while a funny lady, probably didn't deserve the deification "Biography" all but bestowed on her). A "Biography" of Mary, the mother of Jesus, managed to make her life seem downright dull -- largely because it focused on the sort of woman Mary might have been (the historical record is practically nil, and she's not even mentioned that often in the Bible), rather than on tracing Mary's development as a religious figure over the years, which would have been both interesting and based on fact.

And with some figures, the problem is not so much the historical record as the visual history -- or lack thereof.

"It's very difficult to do Moses," Cascio says. "There's not a speck of footage on the guy. You just can't find the home movies on the guy."

Even he admits the series has made some mistakes.

"Most viewers would rather see real people than fictional characters," he says. "Betty Boop, King Arthur, the Phantom, Sherlock Holmes it's pretty interesting, but it's not a biography. It's very difficult, because you're creating someone who was never really born."

Still, there's no place else on television where, in the space of a week, you can find out about Roseanne, Neville Chamberlain, Joseph Goebbels, William Westmoreland and Ross Perot.

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