Is this really what people want to see, or do they tune in because this is all television has to offer? is the question that comes into mind after seeing an example of these non-cinematic shows on the very fringe of the documentary genre.
John Rieber from E! Entertainment was invited to the TV-festival that took place in August in Copenhagen. He seems to believe that people actually want to watch ’true stories’ squeezed into the good old formula of dramatic storytelling. “We do programmes that fit entertainment,” explains Rieber. “We not only debate issues that are important in people’s lives, we also tell the unknown story, the story worth telling.”
In most of the 250 shows already broadcast, the story worth telling deals with the professional and personal life of entertainers, though not all are about celebrities. The story about Elizabeth Glaser, a woman who got AIDS from a blood transfusion and lost her daughter to the illness is an example of a programme in the series that deals with an ordinary person’s personal struggle. Glaser was married to a celebrity though: Peter Martin Glaser who starred in Starsky & Hutch. E! Entertainment found the story so powerful and well-known that they decided it fit the category enough to do it. “The audience comes to E! for one reason: to watch entertainment, and if we do something related to a different subject matter, it alienates them and confuses them, and even if they like it, they won’t expect it, so they go away,” says Rieber.
True Hollywood Stories are conceived as tightly focused stories about one person, one specific topic, one tragedy with no difference in opinions of the people interviewed in the programs. The focus has to be narrow because of the competition of the existing 150-200 specialised cable channels in the US, each of which deals with a specific theme. “We decide what the real story is and then we tell it,” says Rieber. “We find the people who are close friends, relatives to tell the story for you. So we use those interviews in a sense of a script to guide you through the story,” says Rieber.
And that is pretty much what happens in the net total of 42 minutes (not counting the commercials), i.e. interviews with people who know or knew the main character and who tell you how the main character felt or what he or she did in certain situations. The main character might even be ’absent’ from the show and only appear in archive clips and stills.
The whole show is constructed around segments or dramatic beats that chop up the story for the commercial breaks. Each segment ends with a teasing voiceover: ”Coming up: they decided to get an AIDS test!”, small cliff-hangers designed to make the viewer come back for more. “You have to look for those moments when you can say it makes sense to stop here,” explains Rieber. ”In many ways it exploits the situation, but it is the reality of television. Our job is to make sure that people do not turn away during the two-and-half-minute opportunity.”
The story is pre-scripted beforehand and follows the rules of drama and entertainment.
“Even though it is non fiction, we use very traditional storytelling elements,” says Rieber. Chapter VI in the E! Entertainment Handbook (handed out in photocopies at the festival) explains about ‘writing the script’:
Segment One needs to set up the show. It contains, at the top, what is in essence a ‘trailer’, a complete overview of the show. Here is where we grab the viewer by making him/her care about the show’s subject.
Each segment should lead off with a brief paragraph re-setting the show, reminding the viewers of what already happened.
Every person that’s featured in the show needs to be introduced.
The writing should be simple, yet interesting. Don’t forget, we are telling a dramatic story.
Segments should create little cliff-hangers. Teasers should be short and provocative.
The story of Elizabeth Glaser fits into this mould exactly: the main character is introduced, the story is presented, then developed. Information spills out like peas leading the viewer to believe there are very dramatic moments coming up leaving just enough unrevealed to keep the audience intrigued. The beginning of a segment is repeated (just to make sure new viewers won’t miss out on anything) and at the end of a segment everything is rounded up. Everything is done to make it easy for the viewer to jump in at any moment.
Rieber himself is lucid about his job: “You’re in television in order to sell advertising. I tell these stories and even I shake my head sometimes. I don’t think television is going in the right direction, I don’t necessarily agree with some of this. I’m merely telling you about the reality of what TV is like.”
That very TV reality with ratings measured every fifteen minutes is a reality designed to fit commercial interests. It’s about selling products.