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TV's 'real people' trend: is it news gone astray?

By Arthur Unger / July 3, 1980



New York

Sarah Purcell is not an eccentric, although "Real People," the TV series she co-hosts, purports to "raise the American eccentric to his rightful place in the public esteem."

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However, she ism late for her breakfast interview in the dining room of the New York City hotel in which she is staying during her trip East to interview Middle Atlantic "eccentrics" like the lady who understandably refused to sell her house to the Atlantic City, N.J., gambling establishment which now surrounds her. Miss Purcell will also talk with some female stevedores on the New Jersey waterfront. These segments will air in the fall since "real People" is now on reruns (8-9 p.m., NBC, Wednesdays).

On the show, Miss Purcell comes across as a kind of hard-boiled, wisecracking Eve Arden type, not at all the conventionally Ivy League, pretty, self-assured but still soft, lacy, and pink-bespectacled young woman who has delayed coming downstairs until her malfunctioning hair dryer allowed her to dry her blond locks.

If there has been any discernible trend in television these past two years, it has been in the area of information-entertainment shows. First, of course, there is the granddaddy of all the current ones, "60 Minutes," and then there was "20/20" followed by such borderline nonfiction entertainment shows as Miss Purcell's "Real People" on NBC, which was copied very obviously by "That's Incredible" on ABC. The forthcoming season will see "Real People" producer George Schlatter trying a similar format with "Speak Up, America" with Marjoe Gortner as host, and ABC opposing "60 Minutes" with "Those amazing animals." there will also be a show called "thursday Games" in the sports area on NBC.

Some critics are already categorizing all of the eccentric interview shows as "trash news" which tend to demean the very people to whom they supposedly pay tribute. Miss Purcell is indignant about that.

"There's a valid place for us," she insists. "I don't think we are as new as some people give us credit for being. I certainly think we are the show of the '80s but Edward R. Murrow was doing 'Person to Person' back in the '50s, which was quite similar to our show. They didn't have the techonology then to do what we are doing now, but in a sense it was the same thing. Producer George Schlatter (famous for "Laugh In") is certainly an innovator but nothing is ever really all that new.

"We never put down our subjects," she says defiantly, yet somehow not actually defending the shows on the other networks. "It's probably ill-advised to have so many copies of one show come on immediately. But I think there's room for all of us to survive. We're all focused in different areas. 'That's Incredible' likes the bizarre, like Ripley's 'Believe It Or Not' while we are more like a combination of Life magazine and 'Person to Person.' The difference is that we have the luxury of having a film camera and not having to just walk through somebody's living room, but walk through their life for a few days. And we have editing time and all that. Mr. Murrow had to do his shows live."

Is there much faking on these shows? Now that there is so much competition for eccentric people, isn't there the danger that over- eager producers may start encouraging real people to get just a little stranger for the cameras? And doesn't all that carry with it the ingredients for a potential flap like the quiz- show uproar which rocked television in the 1950s and almost resulted in the networks losing control of their own programming to the FCC?

Now Miss Purcell is really indignant. "there is no dressing up of interviews on our show. No more than on an interview on a newscast. We report what we see and the camera is rolling. There's no stretching of the truth even though people have accused us of that. As far as I know, we've only had two hoaxes, where people conned us. we found out after we had aired, that the people were putting us on. It greatly disturbed us. . . ."

On TV, there's sometimes very little to distinguish the hoaxee from the hoaxer. . . .