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Will PBS adopt video diaries as a regular genre?

Published in Current, March 6, 2000
By Steve Behrens

In a television world where the phrase "reality programming" is making a mockery of the word "reality," and inventing new feats of sensationalism, PBS is trying out something a great deal more real.


Next month — on April 7, 14 and 21 [2000]— the network will distribute pilots for a new video diary series, Right Here, Right Now whose producers hope to return someday with a regular series. They help four video-diarists tell small-scale but engaging stories about their lives:

The diarists tell their stories in the present tense, as the series title implies. You see conflicts arise and hear their opinions change about relationships. They often speak to the camera, sometimes while in bed at night, reflecting on events as a pen-and-paper diary-keeper would. "The most authentic moments," says Atlas, "often came when at the end of the day, when they were too tired to act."

Executive Producer Ellen Schneider says the project was inspired by the successes of "Silverlake Life" and "Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter"—first-person chronicles of AIDS and Alzheimer's, respectively, that aired on P.O.V. In Britain, meanwhile, Video Diaries was becoming a hit for the BBC.

A former head of P.O.V., Schneider raised $1 million for the pilot from ITVS and CPB, and hired former WGBH producer Steve Atlas ("executive editor") to pull it together. P.O.V.'s production company, American Documentary Inc., is listed as producer, and the pilots are presented by WGBH and ITVS.

While earlier video diaries on P.O.V. were initiated by people with video-making aspirations, the project turned to nonprofessionals who would tell their own stories with help from professionals.

"Too often when people volunteer to tell a story," Schneider says, "there is some underlying agenda that may not make for good television." Atlas agrees: "I wanted to get the lives of non-filmmakers, people who were not filtering their lives through their professional sensibilities."

Instead, Atlas had researchers seek out people who were "on the brink of something interesting." To find Jonelle, for instance, the producers worked through the head of the stuttering clinic. Hundreds were interviewed by phone in 1997, and the producers sent Hi-8 cameras to some of them to do auditions on tape.

If the series gets a "go," Schneider and Atlas say they might someday choose a protagonist who is not very likeable, but the ones who survived the auditions and made tapes were all appealing in some way. (The opening diarist, Jeanne, is extremely likeable.) They have an edge, they have problems, but "these are people who wear well," Atlas acknowledges. We won't see one of the candidates for the series who was intriguing and exotic, "but ultimately not likeable enough to bear with for an hour."

The crew began shooting with 15 or 20 diarists. Producers trained them with the Hi-8 cameras and did some supplementary shooting. Half didn't work out. The others rolled as many as 100 hours of tape apiece—a massive trove for the editors. "It's just panning for gold, tiny nuggets," says Atlas. The editor and diarist then went back and forth, with the diarist guiding the editor at each step.

The four diaries airing next month were the only ones that survived the shooting and editing. Another diarist, who would have had a "terrific story," backed out after shooting 20 hours of tape, Atlas says, because going public with her life would have been too frightening. A sixth diary, by a member of a garage band, isn't complete, but Atlas still has hopes for it.

"The lesson from all of this was that the learning curve was steeper than we thought it would be," says Atlas.

One decision that worked well was also "the biggest departure from the conventions of television-making," he says: offering the diarists a contract that gives them final approval. "It's scary to do that as a producer. There's a chance that you will never get to 'yes.'"

Atlas doesn't claim this is the only way to go. Exceptional producers like Frederick Wiseman maintain editorial control but reach high levels of "truth-telling and reality" through extended involvement with subjects, he says. Other producers make great diary-like films of their own lives.

But giving the final sign-off to the diarists gave them the freedom to be open with their thoughts throughout the process, while the story was still unfolding.

In April, the series will audition for future diarists, but it will be the diarists who will be sitting in judgment. "The real hope," says Atlas, "is when people see these programs, they will realize they're safe with us."

. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: With small video cameras proliferating wildly in 1995, Schneider advocated using them for a video-diary series.
. Outside link: web site of ITVS, lead funder of the series.

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