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

October 03, 1999|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff

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?

Precisely.

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."

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