Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Guru of TV Docudrama Arnold Shapiro, Producer of 'Rescue 911' and 'Scared Straight,' Talks about His New Show. INTERVIEW

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Guru of TV Docudrama Arnold Shapiro, Producer of 'Rescue 911' and 'Scared Straight,' Talks about His New Show. INTERVIEW

Article excerpt

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 premi143re 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). …

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