Call it 'info-tainment' or 'docu-schlock,' this is popular TV
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''Real People,'' ''That's Incredible,'' ''Ripley's Believe It or Not,'' ''Entertainment Tonight,'' ''Hour Magazine,'' and a host of others are all variations on the theme Bill Hillier founded.Skip to next paragraph
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''These magazine shows are a bonanza for the people who produce them,'' remarks Joe Saltzman, chairman of broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California. ''They cost a fraction of what an entertainment production takes.''
What concerns Mr. Saltzman is that audiences trust these shows like news programs, but the programs are produced with entertainment standards, rather than news standards. ''It's the general attitude that 'we don't have to be fair, because we're not news.' ''
However balanced and accurate, the magazine shows are a hit.
Can it last? Will these snappy three- to six-minute segments on juvenile sidewalk dancers, skyscraper parachutists, and soap-star Linda Evans start wearing thin?
There is such talk. Hillier himself says the form has passed its peak and needs fresh air, just as the game-show format once did.
''That's one of the questions we have to ask ourselves all the time,'' admits Mary Kellogg-Joslyn, programming director of the Los Angeles station that produces ''Two on the Town.''
So many ''PM'' look-alikes have appeared and newscasts have expanded so far into the soft-feature domain of the magazine show (since it's so cheap to produce) that - says ''PM's'' executive producer Dick Crew - ''You've got people doing 'PM' ahead of us, doing 'PM' behind us, and doing 'PM' against us.''
Now only 75 stations produce the show cooperatively and another 20 smaller ones just buy the national package intact.
''People watch TV in funny ways,'' notes Mr. Crew. At 10 p.m., he explains, people are more apt to sit and stare at the television. But at 7:30 or 8 p.m., they are more likely to watch while doing the dishes.
''Ours is sort of a settling-down period. People are paying about three-quarters of their attention, and the show needs to punch through what's going on in the time period.''
''PM's'' response: a shift to shorter, punchier segments; getting cutting-edge trend stories before the competition picks them up; adventure stories; and Hollywood celebrities.
Crew has found an ''incredible appetite'' among viewers for Hollywood stories. ''We went to the well on 'Flashdance' about five times,'' he recalls, doing segments on the movie itself and, successively, its impact on fashion, dance, exercise, and music.
Bill Hillier has applied the magazine recipe to a handful of new programs since he left ''PM Magazine'' in 1980. Currently he is producing ''EPCOT Magazine'' - a family-oriented show specializing in innovative ideas - for the Disney Channel on cable TV.
''Content is the key,'' says Hillier. For a magazine show to last, it needs good story ideas. To this end, some eight staff members at Hillier Productions search out story ideas full-time with the use of several computer data banks.
The great-ideas premise of ''EPCOT Magazine'' makes stories easy to come by anyway, he says. An earlier Hillier effort, ''World of People,'' folded because it simply ran out of the kind of events it presented.
Lawrence Taymor, ''EPCOT Magazine's'' producer, is a veteran of many magazine shows and their mad scramble for fresh story ideas. ''I've produced every story I see on those shows,'' or one very similar to it, Mr. Taymor says. First it's the Great Chili Cook-off, he says, and next it's the Great Chili and Onion Cook-off.
After three years with Los Angeles's ''Two on the Town,'' executive producer Kevin Meagher says the prime liability of the profession is that the staff has no life outside the show. Hours are long and consuming. ''Eat at a good restaurant,'' he says, ''and the first thing you think of is: 'This would make a good segment.' ''