Keeping television history honest - and entertaining. PRIME-TIME HISTORY
IN ancient times people did not distinguish between literature and history, myth and reality, fact and fiction. The earliest stories and the oldest drawings celebrated both deeds and myths, and there were no tests to divide the two. These stories have survived because of the art of their storytelling, not the quality of their truth-telling. The stories survive because they speak to the emotions and concerns of the audience.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Our consciousness that there are two traditions - literature and history - has not eliminated the mingling of fact and fiction or assured the purity of either.
Television docudrama differs from traditional plays in this way: Television brings its viewers news and information and seems generally credible. Moreover, it brings them into your living room. Because of that, the central message of television docudramas - at least as New Yorker television critic Michael Arlen sees it - is that ``they speak the truth.''
But what does it mean ``to speak the truth''?
Getting at the truth poses some complicated problems: what facts, whose point of view, what to put in, what to exclude? These are problems of history. Docudrama also involves the challenges of drama: scenes, characters, casting, editing, movement, pacing. Television itself adds the pressure of commercial realities - commercial breaks, writing to specified time lengths - and the need to serve a diversified national audience.
At ABC our goal is to do the docudrama in a manner that becomes verifiable - that is, to speak the truth - while permitting the flavor of drama.
ABC has stringent guidelines for fact-based dramas. They acknowledge the difference between personal memoirs, biographies of past historical figures, dramas that deal with contemporary people and events, and true stories about people who are not public figures. We also distinguish between a docudrama and work of fiction that contains historical information, for example, the miniseries ``North and South,'' based on a novel by John Jakes.
The closer the drama is to the present day - when history is still raw and the facts undigested - the more scrutiny we give it. Especially when the story deals with unresolved issues of public policy.
In all cases we require producers to provide Broadcast Standards with the sources and authorities used for the presentation as well as specifics about the use of dramatic license.
We require more detailed support (in certain cases at least two sources for a scene) for dramas about court cases, the lives of historically significant public figures, significant historical events, or scientific development.
The problems arise when it comes to evaluating when dramatic license is acceptable. It's at this point that our critics get nervous. Obviously, not every scene or line of dialogue can be documented. Even if there is no verifiable proof for a scene, it will be allowed on a ``reasonable basis'' if it conforms to the individual's known attributes and behavior and if there's no contradictory evidence.
Composite characters - those based on two or more real individuals - may be used, but no prominent character can simply be invented, nor can composite characters play an important role in the action or become major characters. Time constraints are a fact of life in drama, and this requires latitude in telescoping events. No event can be out of sequence, but compression is allowed.
I feel strongly that disclaimers are needed to inform audiences about the mix of fact and fiction. We frequently use them. With stories of legendary characters like Rudolph Valentino, Mae West, Houdini, or Rocky Marciano, we don't hold producers to the same standards of authenticity that we require for programs about political figures. Even so, when dramatic license is allowed, viewers must be advised. Documentation does not, however, resolve the essential difficulty of docudrama: point of view.
This issue was the center of controversy about ``The Atlanta Child Murders,'' a CBS docudrama. Writer-producer Abby Mann made no bones about his belief that Wayne Williams, the man convicted of the murders, was innocent.
When the writer-producer turns advocate, he denies the viewer the opportunity to make a choice. The most important responsibility of Broadcast Standards is to be sure that the arguments are balanced, that the issues are treated fairly, and that, when dealing with issues of contemporary importance, the viewer has enough information to make a personal judgment.
It is doubtful that docudrama - or even the most rigorously footnoted history - can ever be defended on the grounds of facts alone. These alone never make the truth. For the truth we must also have storytelling - a celebration of the heart. Docudrama is the child of our age. Done well, it can speak the truth and speak to the heart.
Mr. Schneider is vice-president of Policy and Standards, Capital Cities/ABC Inc.