Producers turned to research in devising WNET's Going Places
Originally published in Current, Feb. 2, 1997
By Steve Behrens
The thoroughly congenial Al Roker may seem to be winging it as he glides, mutters and mugs his way through the new WNET travel series Going Places, which premiered last month, and he probably is. But though the series zig-zags along like a pleasantly serendipitous vacation, it is the product of an exceptional amount of research.
First, WNET producers wanted to know what went wrong with its predecessor series, Travels. Then they wanted to know what to replace it with. And, finally, they wanted to know what to call the new thing.
The producers needed guidance, says George Page, who oversees travel programs for WNET. "We realized we were making a program for which there was not a precedent, frankly."
Back in the early '90s, WNET wasn't happy with the ratings Travels was getting. "It was spotty," says Page. "Some got fairly decent, above-primetime-average ratings and some did not. . . Basically, the programs weren't pulling in the numbers."
It was a beautifully photographed series, says Page, hosted and produced by travel connoisseur John Heminway. Though some episodes dealt with Everyman travel--even the Greyhound bus--others reached the outer limits of exoticism. Both critics and admirers of the show remember the trip to Tristan da Cunha in the distant south Atlantic. The series' tight budget required WNET to buy programs largely made with British viewers in mind.
After several seasons, WNET asked its research director, Barbara Gordon, to see what viewers thought. They liked having a host, and Heminway kept that role for the fourth season. But with some episodes, the focus groups "would start to go asleep 40 minutes into them," Page says, and they disliked the star travelers, who were often Britishers unknown over here.
The next season was the last. Anticipating that Jennifer Lawson wouldn't renew the $1 million PBS funding for Travels from the network's fiscal 1995 budget, WNET pulled the plug itself, says Page. Heminway left and Gordon took questions to more focus groups. What did they want in a travel program? Where should it go? Who should the host be? (Some folks suggested NBC weatherman Al Roker.)
Afterwards, Page says, "It became clear that we wanted to have an American-produced series if we could possibly afford it. We felt the audience deserved a travel series crafted for the American viewer."
WNET asked two former staff producers, David Healy and Joan Kramer (Top Hat Productions), to propose a new approach. They held their own focus groups and came up with a magazine-style format. But Top Hat wanted to shoot it on film, which would have cost three times the available budget, Page says.
When William Grant came over from WGBH's Nova unit two years ago, the project became his. WNET research had already confirmed that interest in travel was booming, says Grant. "Travel is up in the last decade by more than 1,000 percent. The old two-week vacation in the summer is being supplemented by lots of shorter trips, and there is a very wide variety of what people do."
Grant wanted to distinguish the new show from the mob of elite railway journeys and the like. "There had never been any place for real people's travels," he says. PBS programmers liked the idea. So Going Places goes after the destinations where a lot of real people really go, places like Las Vegas and London.
He wanted three things, says Grant: a series for real people; independent Larry Engel to produce it, and an approachable personality to host it.
Engel, who had worked with him on WGBH projects, "has an unequaled eye for bringing good characters to the screen," Grant testifies. "In making documentaries, we know that characters are everything." Going Places is full of them--offbeat jokers, Roker doing double takes, and nice everyday folks with extremely ordinary remarks to make. Only scraps of a geographic curriculum remain.
For the host, "it was a very short list," says Grant. "It was Al we wanted and Al we got." The weatherman was one of the few elements not tested.
Page says he suggested Roker as host after seeing him front a WNET concert broadcast. The producers cast Roker even before hiring him to narrate last season's Savage Skies.
"He has a very special appeal," says Page. "He can handle serious material. He can make humorous comments about things happening on the screen."
Though Roker introduces each episode, he had time to appear throughout in only one episode this season--the Caribbean cruise. Next season, he may do two trips, says Grant.
The budget for eight episodes had already suggested the editorial approach. WNET was working with $1.5 million from PBS plus less than a million in station funds--which WNET still hopes to cover with an underwriter, according to Page.
With that kind of money, WNET couldn't send out 16mm film crews for leisurely shoots in Timbuktu, Page says. "We decided to experiment with technology, and make the strength of the program something else. We hope the strengths are the destination, the host and the people you meet along the way."
WNET chose to tape the shows using a new generation of small digital Panasonic DV and DVCPRO camcorders the size of amateur video cameras. Larry Engel could shoot with just two people--camera and sound--instead of three, five or even seven in a 16mm crew, says Page. Lights were seldom used. And WNET could shoot and edit episodes in less time than given to film documentaries.
The little camera changed Engel's filmmaking, he said during PBS's January press tour. "It's a much more intimate, much more spontaneous situation to find myself in, with the people who are before the camera. It's more engaging. People are much more willing to open up than with either a big news camera, a Betacam or a 16mm."
Grant marvels: "All of the source material for a film would fit in a box not much larger than two novels. The day will come when a producer will say he's left the whole film on a lunch counter."
Page says the project was a huge challenge: "everything new, new format, new editorial approach, new technology."
Problems naturally arose with the new cameras. Their sound quality was inadequate, Page says, so the crews put the audio on a separate recorder and synched it up later.
The name of the show was one of the last missing elements. WNET solicited hundreds of nominations from station people at the PBS Annual Meeting last summer. Gordon had five finalists tested by her counterpart at WGBH, Pat Harris.
When Grant was working at WGBH, Harris had helped him reject "State of the World" as the title for a series. It became Race to Save the Planet. (Race is a good action word, says Harris. She's also partial to "Secrets" and "Mysteries.")
"Often producers think they're producing feature films, so their titles can be lyrical or obscure," says Harris. "They really have to understand that the viewer is opening TV Guide and looking at three words in a grid."
Those words must be literal and intriguing, Harris advises, not academic or literary. And they shouldn't have colons; the subtitle will never appear in a program guide.
Harris tests titles at a low cost by piggybacking on WGBH's telemarketing calls to lapsed members. In September, she tested five names for the new travel series. The least favorite was "We're Off," topped by "Escape," "Travels" and "Passport." The top selection, with almost a third of the 300 votes, was "Going Places."
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