Bio power

Whether they're thoughtful or slapped together, biography TV shows are popping up everywhere.

From news-centered profiles to scandal-laden celebrity portraits to histories of great figures, biographies proliferate on television.

Biography shows come in all shades of relevance and in various levels of artfulness - from well-made to slapped together. But they are almost always about famous people - like movie stars - no matter how dubious that fame might be.

And their numbers keep growing. Arts & Entertainment has launched The Biography Channel, available in some markets by satellite or digital cable. Besides airing installments of A&E's long-running "Biography" series, the new channel runs movies in which the profiled stars appeared. Taking star-gazing to the max is E! Entertainment Television, whose motto is all-celebrity, all-the-time coverage and which airs no less than three different biography shows. In the same vein, VH1's "Behind the Music" gives viewers an inside look into pop music's biggest stars; and Lifetime For Women's "Intimate Portrait" concentrates on women from the worlds of entertainment, politics, and sports.

Beginning Sept. 27, MSNBC will add a new biography series, "Headliners and Legends" to complement "Time and Again."

"Legends" will tell the story of the times through the headliners of the times. Thus, a show on Martha Reeves will be as much about Motown Records and the civil rights movement as it will be about the singer who brought us "Heat Wave."

But then, any good biography of a historical figure helps us grasp the times in which they lived.

Take Ken Burns's outstanding documentary about two founders of the women's movement, "Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony" (airing Nov. 7 and 8 on PBS), an artful and gripping show that tells us as much about the status of women in Western civilization during the 19th century as it does about the leaders of women's suffrage.

Then there's PBS's long-running series "American Masters." It focuses on 20th-century artists and thinkers who have influenced the sensibility of their times, says executive producer Susan Lacy.

Behind the scenes

While the approaches of most biographies is "womb to tomb," "American Masters" and most other PBS biography shows focus on "What is at the heart of the story" - what it all means. "We are looking for giants," Ms. Lacy says.

Sandra Heberer, director of news and factual programming at PBS, says that the network is trying to make multidimensional shows that ask larger questions about life and death and choices.

That can also be said of "Profiles" on Bravo. Francis Berwick, senior vice president of programming at Bravo, says "Profiles" zooms in on the creative process - what inspires the artists whose lives they investigate, and their body of work.

It looks at "how they arrive at their art and what drives them as people," Ms. Berwick says. "We look at the influences on their world and how it shapes their art."

Celebrity itself might not be sufficient reason to choose a subject, but it is a necessary condition at A&E. " 'Biography' is a reflection of the world," says A&E's Michael Cascio. "A&E is still a commercial network, but it tells a story in a more adult, thoughtful way."

Each film of the series follows simple criteria: Pick a recognizable name with "a good story, whose life is worth one or two hours of film," says Mr. Cascio.

"We try to find some kind of perspective - an insight we wouldn't be able to get anywhere else - not a whitewash, but the truth in context," he says.

Some of the Biography films may take up to four years to research and produce - like the one it has in the works about Picasso. That's a big contrast to channels that pump out a new biography in a few weeks.

Cascio admits that using biographies to tell history lets viewers look for a little bit of themselves in the lives of important people. "Thomas Edison had a troubled childhood and still became a success," Cascio says. So the lives of great achievers can be an inspiration, he says.

"As we near the end of this century, we need a perspective on the incredible changes over the last 100 years," says Kristen Iversen, author of "Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth," who appeared as an interviewed expert in A&E's biography on Brown this past spring.

" 'Biography' gives people someone to connect with, a barometer for their own lives. You can use a life like Molly Brown's as a lens through which to look at the Gilded Age," Ms. Iversen says.

In other words, sometimes the "big picture" may be too big to grasp - we are overloaded with information and need a person to put it in perspective and give it a human dimension.

But celebrity biography has another function in our society. In an age in which establishing community is more and more difficult, celebrity can become a substitute for community.

"When you look at the reaction to the death of John Kennedy or Princess Diana - in many ways we were more familiar with them than we are with our own neighbors," Bravo's Berwick says. "We feel we knew them."

"We're more and more split apart," says Craig Howes, chairman of the Center for Biographical Research at the University of Hawaii. "Fantasizing about someone else's lifestyle meets the need to know about others.... And then, the notion of celebrity is a component by which we understand ourselves as a community."

The appetite to know more about others who are familiar to us in movies and rock videos is tapped expertly by shows like VH1's "Behind the Music" and the E! Entertainment network. E!'s "Mysteries & Scandals" (which deals mostly with Hollywood figures), "The E! True Hollywood Story," a variety of entertainment industry bios, and "Celebrity Profile" unapologetically center on the stars.

Craig Bannon, E!'s executive vice president of programming, says that often the subjects of their biography shows appreciate how E!'s approach puts their lives in perspective. He has received thanks from the likes of Rob Reiner and Mia Farrow.

"We're more focused on personality than in a body of work," Mr. Bannon says. Clips [from movies and TV shows] are important, but we're more interested in talking to people who were close to the subject."

From tragedies to triumphs

Lifetime For Women's biographical series wants to

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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