The Guru of TV Docudrama

Arnold Shapiro, producer of 'Rescue 911' and 'Scared Straight,' talks about his new show. INTERVIEW

ASIDE from the rare examples like Ken Burns's Civil War, the pure documentary is a television dinosaur, shot down by the channel changer. The documentary format has evolved into news show mini-series and so-called reality programming like magazine shows and docudramas. While evoking considerable nose-holding by the PBS crowd and critics, it is a hugely popular format with the public. And it is hugely influential.

Consider this: the Rescue 911 series on CBS, which recreates true stories of heroism, is the network's highest rated prime time show among children under the age of 11.

Arnold Shapiro, creator of Rescue 911, is a documentarian who evolved with the art form, a prolific producer of reality programs. His 1977 documentary, "Scared Straight," showing a harsh confrontation between hardcore prison convicts and juvenile delinquents, is considered seminal reality programming. His "Goodnight Sweet Wife: A Murder in Boston" about the murder of Carol Stuart allegedly by her husband and the racial crisis sparked by it, is quintessential docudrama fare.

His new documentary, "Over the Influence," (see article to left) examining drug and alcohol prevention and recovery programs is as close to pure documentary as commercial television gets these days. Heavy drama and emotion crank it up above the snooze level of the average viewer. Delivering information in this "compelling and dramatic" way is key to capturing an audience's attention, and thus key to commercial television success, explains Mr. Shapiro.

The producer, who says he had to work in commercial television or not work at all, offers critics no apologies for his success. Instead, he is enthusiastic about the measure of social conscience he feels he is able to bring to his programs, noting that most of his commercial documentaries find their second runs on the Discovery, Disney, and Arts and Entertainment channels.

"He's really trying to do shows with meaning ... in a market that demands the worst marriage of entertainment and journalism," observes Joe Saltzman, a long-time friend of Shapiro. Mr. Saltzman is an Emmy-winning producer of pure news documentaries and now teaches journalism at the University of Southern California. "Arnold took the low road of hustling his shows ... but to condemn that is not to acknowledge the reality of television. He is the mainstream."

Indeed, Shapiro looks and talks like a mainstream American - his clothes, and conversation simply don't say "Hollywood." In an interview on the occasion of the Washington premi 143>re of "Over the Influence," Shapiro talked about the values and philosophy behind his work:

How do you select subjects?

They have to be compelling, dramatic, relevant. Everything I do is on commercial television, so if it doesn't compete in that arena it's going to get the ratings that a PBS documentary does and I'm going to be out of work.

But aren't there compromises in that?

I try to make everything I do as commercial as possible.... I want as wide exposure as possible. But with that, hand in hand, goes responsibility. With every television project that I create or produce, I try to make it help people in some way. It has to have some beneficial elements to it.

What were the beneficial elements of doing the Stuart story, for example?

First of all, we stumbled onto that story because our Rescue 911 cameras were right there [on the night of the murder].

I had a purpose in doing that [story]. I thought it could heighten awareness to domestic violence, which of course in this case was carried to an extreme, and to the concept of disposable mates.

But how common really is something like the Stuart case?

Let's start naming them ... I don't think it's one in a million. We have Jefferey McDonald, the guy in Toms River, New Jersey.... There's a string of these men who look upon their wives as disposable. I don't care if it only happens 20 times a year, that's 20 lives I'd like to shed light on.

What is it in the audience that is intrigued by this kind of programming?

Let me just stereotype for a minute: If some guy with a sixth-grade education who drinks himself to sleep every night tunes in Rescue 911 to watch all the fire engines roaring down the street ... that man is still being exposed to the importance of learning CPR, that man is still being exposed to the dangers of drunk driving and I could name 20 messages that are in every episode of Rescue. I don't care how you lure people to a particular program and I don't care why they watch. I only care that they do watch because the message is there.

Why don't we see hour-long news documentaries like the old NBC White Papers anymore?

Television is too expensive and competitive now. Nobody's going to put something on that they don't think is going to attract a large audience. So, gone are the days of generous time commitments to altruistic programming.

Does that mean commercial television - and your own programs - have no altruistic elements?

What I meant was they [White Papers] didn't get high ratings. The networks didn't put them on to win the time period, they put them on to educate people. So the dramatic form which does get higher ratings took over for the documentary ... and the [pure] documentary went to its final resting place - PBS.

Does that say something about the audience?

It does say something about the audience. Because if the audience craved documentaries, and if the audience craved cultural programming, then PBS would be the No. 1 network.

The majority of people watch television the majority of time to escape their personal woes, to be entertained and as somewhat of a narcotic, a desensitizer. There are many people who watch television to be informed and educated and inspired and enlightened but that's not the main reason that draws most people to the set most of the time and we have to be aware of that. That's why you see what you see [on television].

But does television have a responsibility to change the reasons that people watch?

No. It doesn't have that responsibility, sadly, any more than if you open a pizza restaurant because pizza is popular food you don't have the responsibility to introduce vegetarian food because you know that's healthier ... that's not your responsibility.

What I think television does have a responsibility to do is not to make problems worse. If television's main purpose is to entertain and provide escapism, I'd say it does it rather well. But it also has some other offerings, some other goals and that's where I step in, and many others too.

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