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

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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."

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.

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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. . . .

Miss Purcell shrugs but she is not too happy at the direction of the conversation.

Miss Purcell was once a "weather girl," hosted a talk show, and has recently done a made-for-TV movie. With producer Schlatter she is also preparing to do a pilot of a TV sitcom about TV news people. However, early in her career she was a secretary. For some time TV has seemed to be just about the only industry where it is still possible to move up the ladder quickly. Is that still true?

Miss Prucell shakes her head and laughs. "I think the reason for the rapid advancement in this business is that there is so much turnover. In TV most of us started in lowly jobs. Not only women. Men often start in mail rooms, and that's even beneath the secretarial jobs.

"I started as a secretary about 11 years ago and it took a strike to put me on the air in San Diego. I was told I was management and had to get down there like everybody else.

"Right now it's more difficult to start in this business . . . unless there's a strike and you are working in management. the business, then, was not so professional. Now, I don't think it would be so easy -- San Diego would call Chicago and say: 'Who've you got? We need somebody to do the morning show? And they would hire somebody who had major market experience. Or, in other cases, a larger station might move in somebody from a smaller market, But to get that big chance is rare now. You have to go to a very small market to start."

Back to "Real People." How much input does Sarah Purcell actually have in that show?

"A lot. The lady stevedores was a concept I heard about at a party here in New York. A woman was talking to me about how seldom women think about going beyond what society considers their traditional occupations. And I think it's only because of lack of knowledge about them. But there are lots of women out there who are working in nontraditional careers.

"I met a woman on the road recently who came up to me and said: 'I really appreciated your segment on YoYo, the trucker, because I am a woman of 40 and I've never had a job. My husband and I just divorced and I have three children and I need to find a career. Even though I don't want to be a truck driver, at least I know that there is more out there than being a waitress or secretary. I would really like to see more of that.'

"So, I said: 'Okay, you've got it.' And, since than I have actively searched for that type of story. It's an assignment I've made for myself and I have been given all the leeway I want."

Miss Purcell smiles proudly. What has impressed her most about the wide range of people she has met since starting to do the show?

"The major surprise for me has been the courage of so many of the people. It's very easy to be courageous when you're following a cause. People expect that. It's the people who have odd vocations and avocations, who go right ahead and do what they want to do that impress me. Like Disco Harry, a 70-year- old man in Fort Wayne, Ind. Now that's not exactly a big disco town and it takes courage for a 70-year-old wearing electric jewelry to make the disco scene and hold his head up high. . . ."

Miss Purcell, perhaps, senses that her example has not exactly impressed the interviewer and she goes on compulsively.

"I really admired that. I think that ordinary people are braver than anybody gives them credit for. It has made me question myself. Do I have that kind of courage?"

The interviewer doesn't answer that question, just nods politely.

"I just hope that I can always do what I believe in. and I believe in 'Real People.' It's a good and worthwhile show," she insists rather defensively. "I have heard from people in the field that the show gives them courage; gives them validation. And, really, that makes me very happy to know that I have affected somebody's life positively. I hope I have the same kind of courage."

As he leaves, the intetviewer thinks to himself that promoting the innocuously pleasant "Real People" as a positive factor in our society takes courage, too.

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