ABC's new version of reality TV is for real

July 19, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- Television is not generally teeming with discussions of metaphysics. But Phyllis McGrady, the senior vice president in charge of special programming for ABC, wants viewers to know there's reality TV and then there's "true" reality TV.

In discussing the six-hour prime-time documentary, "Hopkins 24/7," a journey inside Baltimore's Johns Hopkins medical center, which her network will premiere Aug. 30, McGrady said, "This is true reality TV. We didn't build a home or create a situation. This is the real situation."

Her reference was to CBS' "Big Brother" and "Survivor," the two "reality" TV series getting the most publicity this summer. "Survivor" features 16 persons on a South Pacific island competing to see who will be the last person remaining on the island. He or she will win $1 million; "Big Brother" features 10 strangers locked in a house on the CBS Studio lot in Los Angeles competing to be the last one out and the winner of $500,000.

Rather than fabricate such an artificial environment, a crew of 25 ABC staffers lived in Hopkins for 3 1/2 months last year, trying to capture a world that really exists. The crew used digital, hand-held cameras - allowing the photographers to be as unobtrusive as possible, creating a cinema verite style. There will be no on-camera correspondents, only narration.

Success in the ratings for "Hopkins 24/7" could mean more such programming. ABC has already scheduled the documentary to replay on the Discovery Health cable channel in January, according to the industry trade publication, Variety.

It's also possible that a "24/7" franchise series that would visit other hospitals and medical institutions.

"It's very hard to capture the inner workings of a place, especially one as complicated as Hopkins," said McGrady in a telephone interview with the Sun Monday. "There's an inner culture that exists in a place like that, and to get at it, you have to make the major commitment of moving in and staying there until hopefully it starts to show itself to you.

"It was a risky thing, in that we didn't know what we'd find or what we'd see. Fortunately, it turned out that it was well worth the risk."

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