'ABC News Closeup's' documentary blitz

Pamela Hill, ABC News executive vice-president and executive producer of the 'ABC News Closeup' documentary unit, is a complex combination of talents and tentions.

In a uniquely assertive, yet still retiring, way she is responsibly news-oriented; somewhat inarticulately intelligent (I have seen her shiver and shudder before getting up to make a speech to TV critics . . . but then again, who wouldn't shudder at that?); marvelously receptive to new ideas; and in the long run, one of the most innovative executives in the network news business today.

Dressed for work and interview in what looks like a purple-pink bulky wool peasant tunic which reaches to the top of her gray suede boots (I am wearing a Black Watch tartan jacket and black tasseled loafers, in case my sexism is in question again), if she wore sunglasses on top of her head she would look like the Hollywood version of a fashion-magazine editor. But when she speaks she is definitely a newsperson . . . with strong beliefs about the place of the documentary in television and the need to safeguard it from the encroachment of entertainment values.

This next seven days is probably one of the busiest periods ever for any documentary executive. Three 'ABC News Closeup' documentaries have been scheduled within the span of a single week: "The Shattered Badge" (Saturday, Dec. 27, 10-11 p.m.); "A Matter of Survival" (Thesday, Dec. 30, 10-11 p.m.); and "Invasion" (Thursday, Jan. 1, 9:30-11 p.m.); check local listings for all of these shows.

I have viewed all three in one form or another (finished, nearly finished, unedited), and they constitute a fabulous trilogy, pinpointing the wide varieties of excellence audiences have come to expect from Pamela Hill and her senior producer, Richard Richter, working in conjunction with an extraordinary staff of talented TV-documentary makers. Perhaps one of Miss Hill's greatest talents is her ability to break the outmoded patterns and rules that old-timers in the documentary field believed could never be broken in today's competitive commercial-TV market.

"The Shattered Badge," produced and written by Paul Altmeyer, is probably one of the fairest and best documentaries ever made about the role of the policeman in our society. In investigates the unbearable stresses that make the job "the hardest job in America today," causing an enormously high divorce and suicide rate. Filled with shockingly honest revelations by policeman and former policemen, the documentary looks at Philadelphia and Boston, in particular, and comes up with the conclusion expressed by a Boston policeman that "the job builds human bombs," liable to explode at any moment.

If this superb documentary has one major weakness, it is the same weakness many 'ABC Closeups' share -- the lack of a commentator-host such as Bill Moyers to give a pertinent, conscientious overview. But "The Shattered Badge" performs a much-needed public service in exposing the stresses and strains of law enforcement in society. It is a sure prizewinning documentary, which will be quoted, rerun, and remembered for along time to come.

"A Matter of Survival," produced by Phil Lewis with correspondent Tom Jarriel , is a penetrating look at Jamaica within the framework of the Caribbean and the whole third-world attempt to find a survival method in a world dominated by richer nations. While the documentary concentrates on Jamaica and its recent change from socialist to capitalist government, it presents an engrossing overview of the major problems of all such emerging nations, not just the problems of Jamaica. It is a fascinatingly informative and at the same time entertaining film.

"Invasion" is, perhaps, the most innovative of the three and is a prime example of Pam Hill's receptivity to new ideas . . . and, in a way, her fearlessness in pushing ahead. "Invasion" is a long, complex British (Granada TV) "drama-documentary" which reenacts the Russian interference in Czechoslovakia in 1968. It dramatizes the invasion and the political battles within the Czechoslovakia Communist Party and within the Kremlin. Produced and directed by Leslie Woodhead, "Invasion" is based on the eyewitness account of Zdenek Mlyner, secretary of the Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party, a close friend of former First Secretary Alexander Dubcek. Both men went to the Soviet Union with other Czech officials and suffered deep himiliation at the hands of Brezhnev.

According to producer Woodhead, who visited my office before his recent return to England: "I can only justify the use of the dramatized form for news programming when an important topic such as this --be told by conventional means. Then, so long as you make it clear to the audience what you are doing and so long as you have a trustworthy witness to guide you, I feel it is valid to go ahead and reenact."

Mr. Woodhead was especially impressed by the fact that Miss Hill, despite some past criticism that some of her documentaries tended to be a bit on the sensational "go-go" side, was willing to buy the rights to this documentary for American TV. The other commercial networks steer clear of "outside" documentaries . . . and are especially wary of anybody else's dramatizations.

Now, Miss Hill explains that she convinced ABC News Chief Roone Arledge that "Invasion" should be aired as soon as possible because it is so analagous to the potential situation in Poland. "I believe in searching out new and unusual forms -- and sometimes taking chances with them. Although the dramatization form isn't new, its scrupulous use as a news documentary form differs from the way we have used the docu-drama in this country -- basically as an entertainment."

She says she believes that there is "no one form of documentary that can address the various kinds of problems we are trying to inform people about. That's why we are constantly searching for new forms." Among independent and free-lance documentarians, Miss Hill has already gained a reputation for maintaining an open door. Several of them have already joined her staff, as a matter of fact, despite the unfortunate experience she seems to have had with Marcel Ophuls, who was assigned to do a Closeup on Hollywood and could not make it conform to 'Closeup's' format . . . and left, to Miss Hill's obvious consternation.

As to the innuendoes that ABC trivializes the news, she shrugs and smiles just a but sadly. "I would have thought that with 'Nightline' proving such a serious success and with the fine reputation of 'World News Tonight,' those charges would have pretty much disappeared. In any event, Ifeel free to go about doing the kinds of serious issues which Roone Arledge has hired and then freed us to do here at 'Closeup.'"

Has Mr. Arledge placed any restrictions on her?

"None at all -- only the understanding that we are doing serious issues here. All subjects must merit an hour's analysis. There'd more likely be objections if we tried to do something light or frothy. The commitment to 12 documentaries a year has been scrupulously adhered to. The reason there are two this December is because no network likes to run potentially low-rated documentaries during a sweep period. So the November time slot [during the sweep period when advertising rates are set based on viewership] was pushed into December. The additional slot for 'Invasion' came about because we felt it was so marvelous and timely."

Miss hill reveals that in March or April she will be doing something else unique in commercial TV --portant documentary on nuclear defense systems, "The Apocalypse Game," together with another updated hour on the proliferation of nuclear arms. "There is a real need to do such things in prime time -- we have a responsibility to inform TV viewers on issues we feel are important . . . and being over looked."

Is there any new documentary form which Mill Hill anticipates soon?

"We have not done the very personal profile of an individual yet. And the personal-vision show -- the personal perception of a filmmaker like Ophuls, for instance. I'd still like to see that."

She worries about the current "Real People" trend in entertainment TV these days. "They blur the line between entertainment and information, and that is something that concerns me greatly.

"I believe that we in network news have a sacred duty to hew to the line of truth. There is nothing more important. And, perhaps it sounds a bit pompous, but I never forget that."

It doesn't sound pompous . . . and a conversation with Pamela Hill convinces the interviewer that she means what she says and has the power and determination to hew to the line she articulates.

Take a look at her three powerful documentaries in the next week and you will believe, too.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.