Bio Power Whether They're Thoughtful or Slapped Together, Biography TV Shows Are Popping Up Everywhere

By M. S. Mason Arts and television writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

Bio Power Whether They're Thoughtful or Slapped Together, Biography TV Shows Are Popping Up Everywhere


M. S. Mason Arts and television writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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