A silver lining in the 'reality' cloud

'Hopkins 24 / 7,' 'American High' and other shows hold promise as compelling documentaries.

Television

July 23, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

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.

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