PBS version of ‘reality TV’ distills drama from real life

By Karen Everhart Bedford

PBS's breed of reality shows aren't as manipulative as the big networks', but they can still deal with sexual issues. In Senior Year, teenage lovers Jean and Maria decide to abstain. (Photo copyright 2000 by Displaced Films.)

As provocatively staged “reality TV” series explode on the commercial networks, PBS is expanding its own slate of what it calls “observational documentaries” in the network’s reinvention under President Pat Mitchell.

In April [2001], American High, a fast-paced docusoap series dropped by Fox last summer, will lead off a new weekly PBS strand targeted to teens and young adults. Then, in the fall, Senior Year, a 13-part series that PBS execs promoted to television critics during the January press tour, will take over the same Wednesday 10 p.m. timeslot. This summer P.O.V. also will present Fred Wiseman’s 1968 film High School, a national broadcast debut that was also promoted at the press tour.

With American High and Senior Year, PBS aims to create a new strand, “so the audience can find it and know it’s going to be there,” and keep tuning in, said John Wilson, senior programming v.p. PBS has scheduled repeats of American High through the summer, and is considering a second run of Senior Year after its debut. PBS also optioned the right to commission another run of American High from producer R.J. Cutler, who made stars of James Carville and George Stephanopolous in The War Room.

Beyond this new strand for teens, PBS looks to schedule more observational docs as limited series and specials. “We want to make sure we’re the home for some of the best of these,” continues Wilson. On its new website for producers (www.pbs.org/producers), PBS lists observational docs as its first programming priority.

Many series and feature-length documentaries already in the works offer possibilities for both young adults and the broader audience. Among these are:

  • Five Girls—a two-hour documentary that interweaves the lives of adolescent girls from very different backgrounds growing up in and around Chicago. Filmed over two years by Kartemquin Educational Films (producers of Hoop Dreams), this documentary is slated to air as a P.O.V. special this fall.
  • Local News—a character-driven, behind-the-scenes examination of the workings and personalities in a television newsroom in Charlotte, N.C. Produced by Lumiere Productions (With God on Our Side) with WNET in New York, this five-hour limited series is in post-production for the fall.
  • New Americans—a six-hour documentary series from Kartemquin that chronicles the lives of immigrants to the United States from Mexico, Nigeria, Palestine, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic and India. Currently in production for a 2002 airdate.
  • Coming of Age in Appalachia (working title)—The next documentary series on rural life from David Sutherland (The Farmer’s Wife) follows four 16-year-old boys over three years. In production as a six-hour Frontline/ITVS presentation for 2003.
  • Love’s Journey (w.t.)—A four-hour series about three generations of a family caught up in the welfare and foster care system, shot over 12 years by first-time filmmaker Jennifer Dworkin. This film, partially backed by ITVS, is completing post-production and seeking PBS distribution. Jennifer Fox (American Love Story) is executive producer.
  • The Congregation—a feature-length cinema verite portrait of a mainstream Protestant congregation, in development by Alan and Susan Raymond (American Family). PBS announced its commitment to this film during the press tour.

Also under consideration at Braddock Place is an expansion of P.O.V. beyond its 10-week season and an occasional primetime special. “The specials we’ve done out of season have been extremely successful,” said Cara Mertes, executive producer. “Viewers and stations both are responding well to this programming.” Decisions about P.O.V.‘s scheduling will be made in the next year as PBS revamps its primetime schedule, she said.

Whose reality?

PBS has been delivering reality-based documentaries to national audiences for decades, and they’re quite different from the new breed of “reality” shows on commercial channels.

“It’s the difference between filming people’s real lives and setting up what is essentially a game show,” commented David Zeiger, executive producer of Senior Year. Viewers apparently like game shows with “real threats,” he added, “but the superficiality of the reality stuff bothers a lot of us curmudgeons.”

To elicit intimate portraits of the teens in Senior Year, Zeiger deployed videographers who were students or recent grads from L.A.’s big film schools. “I wanted there to be a very genuine relationship between the filmmaker and the subjects.” The mission of the young filmmakers was “to be part of these kids’ lives . . . and go as deeply and intimately as possible.”

Zeiger said his work is not cinema verite but “personal exploration” that he can’t quite categorize. “For me, it’s always been extremely important that the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject is part of the story.” In The Band, presented on P.O.V. in 1998, Zeiger filmed his son’s high school band for a year. “It was a coming-of-age story for both of us—how we faced and dealt with his growing up.”

“I’ve always believed that you enter a relationship with the main characters in your documentary, and that is the axis on which the film is made,” said David Van Taylor of Lumiere Productions. The filmmaker’s task is to use what comes out of that relationship to “create a truthful experience for the audience.” Taylor and R.J. Cutler codirected A Perfect Candidate, a documentary about Oliver North’s 1994 Senate campaign that aired on P.O.V. in 1997. Taylor is one of the producers of Local News.

On its website for producers, PBS offers The Farmer’s Wife as an example of the type of observational doc it wants to showcase more often on its air. Wilson includes P.O.V. in the genre, along with Michael Apted’s 7 Up series, and an upcoming National Geographic Special on Air Force One.

Producers working in this genre describe it as a modernized form of cinema verite. Subjects of the films are “cast” for the dramatic possibilities of their real lives. They allow filmmakers to observe them for months or even years. Some record their own personal revelations on video diaries. During editing, raw footage is distilled into nonfiction dramatic narrative, and story arcs are crafted into and across episodes. Narration, voice-overs, music and interviews—techniques eschewed by cinema verite purists—are tools for illuminating characters and the developing dramatic plot.

Kartemquin is producing New Americans for air in 2002.

“At Kartemquin, when we look for a story we want that sense that you’re not just watching something and fascinated by it, but that it’s connected to what’s come before and after,” said Gordon Quinn, executive producer of New Americans. Explaining to funders after years of filming that “it’s not done yet” can be tricky. “We’ve got the beginning and the middle, and we have to wait until there’s an end—something that gives us a sense that there’s a story that went somewhere.”

“The reason you have to watch people for so long to get anything, is that life doesn’t happen in these huge dramas,” said Jennifer Fox, who spent seven years making American Love Story.

“It’s very, very hard to make reality appear more interesting—it takes a lot of craft,” commented Catherine Allan, production executive for Twin Cities Public Television, the presenting station for American High and Hoop Dreams. “Out of hundreds of hours of clips, those stories don’t just naturally fall into place.”

She described American High as “beautifully edited and tightly constructed,” with character-centered stories building in an arc through each program.

Stylistically, it’s MTV’s Real World set in the real world, not a manipulated environment. The characters are compelling and revealing, and the fast pace demands viewers’ complete attention. Become distracted while folding laundry, and you’ll miss a key piece of dialogue or illuminating moment.

While it’s tempting for public TV programmers and producers to dismiss commercial TV’s version of reality as crass and stupefying, others warn that public TV can’t rest on its long track record of delivering higher-minded work.

“The worst of the reality programs on the commercial networks have done us a real service by demonstrating to audiences that programming without stars could be telling, with compelling stories,” said Dalton Delan, production chief for WETA in Washington. Viewers are now “trained to see dramatic arcs and storytelling segments in a way that’s more modular.”

He pointed to ABC’s Hopkins 24/7 turned an observational documentary into a “wonderful soap opera.” Producers stylized the series, chose characters and structured stories so that viewers could “get to the good stuff a little quicker.”

“That is a really interesting change and not all for the bad, because unfortunately, viewing habits tend to be short-form rather than long-form.”

Copyright 2001 Current

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