In ‘reality’ world, life’s different for ABC News documentary unit

By David Bauder

Eight years ago, a crew followed doctors and patients’ lives in ‘Hopkins 24/7.’

NEW YORK — In filming a sequel to a 2000 series about Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, ABC News producers found that reality television had changed how they could present reality on television.

The network’s six-part series following the lives of doctors and patients, “Hopkins,” premieres tonight at 10, the first of a handful of summer series from ABC News. This one traces steps first taken on “Hopkins 24/7” eight years ago.

Back then, executive producer Terence Wrong’s cinema-v rit style was relatively novel for a news division and for prime-time television in general. Now television is flooded with series that feature real people but aren’t exactly nonfiction.

“If you put on a show where real human beings are fighting for their lives, the hope is that the authenticity will come through and distinguish the show from what is called reality television,” Wrong said.

TV cameras make most people nervous, but in convincing Hopkins to participate Wrong also had to deal with the cynicism of some doctors that he was making just another reality show instead of realistically trying to portray life at a big hospital. That wasn’t an issue a decade ago.

“I was flat-out scared,” said Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, a brain surgeon. “I was scared for my patients. I was scared for my family. I was scared for myself.”

Wrong tried to counter the skepticism with time.

ABC’s crews spent four months at Hopkins, taking thousands of hours of film. Stories unfolded naturally and characters emerged. It reached the point where Dr. Quinones-Hinojosa said he forgot the cameras were there.

Alex Piper, who worked on Wrong’s crew, contrasted that with reality series he had worked on for Los Angeles-based producers who fed cable networks. Filming would be done in a month or two. Some stars of reality series have complained that they were made into caricatures so they would fit a story producers had in mind.

“Then we come on the air without manipulation or choreography,” Wrong said. “Are the viewers making a distinction? Do you get brownie points for making something that is a true documentary? The answer is no. But you have to be dramatic enough and entertaining enough to hold their attention against all of these other shows. And that’s a very high bar.”

Dr. Quinones-Hinojosa is one of several strong characters in tonight’s first episode. He climbed over a border fence from Mexico as a youth to pick fruit in California, and eventually became one of the nation’s top brain surgeons.

Some of the stories are titillating, almost like soap operas. ABC focuses on Karen Boyle, a rare female urologist, and a couple she is treating where the man is trying to reverse a vasectomy. A resident, Brian Bethea, is chronicled in the midst of marital trouble. He agonizes on camera about it in one raw moment, fed by fatigue and emotion; yet, he’s also shown at a bar, flirting with women.

Call him the Dr. McDreamy of “Hopkins.”

It’s an apt analogy. Makers of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” have told Wrong that “Hopkins 24/7” partly inspired their prime-time medical drama. Now ABC is promoting “Hopkins” with spots interspersing pictures of its real-life characters with the fictional doctors and nurses on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

It is prime-time television, after all, and Wrong said he had to pick stories with entertainment in mind. He’s studied dramas and adapted some of their techniques, such as tiny cliffhangers before commercial breaks so viewers won’t wander. The original series eight years ago used a narrator; now the story moves forward without one. Wrong also hired some struggling singer-songwriters to give “Hopkins” a soundtrack.

“I hope that what people get out of this is that we are just like everyone else,” Dr. Quinones-Hinojosa said. “We’re human beings. We try to do the best we can with what we have.”

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