Persistence paid off as military finally OK'd OWN's 'Married to the Army'

For producer Stephanie Drachkovitch, getting Oprah Winfrey’s greenlight for docu-reality series “Married to the Army” was the easy part.

Securing the Defense Dept.’s approval to bring cameras onto a military base in Alaska, however, was a process that took more than four years and involved numerous rejections. Drachkovitch, a reality TV vet, finally persuaded the Army’s film liaison in summer 2011 that she had the personal and professional experience to depict the stories of the families left behind when a soldier is deployed overseas.

“Married to the Army: Alaska,” which bows on OWN on Nov. 18, became a passion project for Drachkovitch because she grew upas an Army brat. “What inspired me to do this show was my life,” Drachkovitch told Variety. “My mom was an Army wife, my dad was career military for 20 years. When the war started after 9/11, I was struck that no one was telling the stories of the families left behind. I felt that someone needed to be telling this story.”

Drachkovitch’s 44 Blue Prods. shingle was hardly the only producer pitching this idea to the Defense Dept. The success of Lifetime drama “Army Wives,” now heading into its seventh season, propelled interest in the subculture, as did skeins like Showtime’s “Homeland” and now ABC’s “Last Resort,” both with similar themes.

“There has been a lot of interest in stories about Army families,” said Lt. Col. Steven Cole, who serves as the U.S. Army film and TV liaison based in L.A. “But there has also been concern (with reality shows). These are families who have loved ones deployed into harm’s way. Putting a camera in their face would increase the burden on them. We wanted to make sure they were taken care of and not exploited.”

Army brass ultimately gave Drachkovitch approval to film a select group of families stationed at Fort Richardson, just outside Anchorage, Alaska. Nod came in part because of her perseverance and own Army brat history but primarily because of her experience working with the military on such projects as History’s “The True Story of Black Hawk Down.” Drachkovitch’s banner, also known for producing MSNBC’s long-running docuseries “Lockup,” has established a rep for producing content involving hard-to-access segments of society.

That “Married” was an OWN show was another plus for the project in the Army’s eyes as the network is known for inspirational and uplifting rather than sensationalistic fare.

“There are enough challenges that these families face with deployment. We weren’t interested in reality TV shows where drama is created, and that was what a lot of the proposals we got were about,” Cole said. “44 Blue’s proposal reflected a real understanding of this topic. We have a relationship with 44 Blue going back 22 years. That’s 22 years of trust.”

Army also reviewed every episode of “Married” for operational security and accuracy, as the org does for any film or TV content produced with its blessing.

“In the agreement we sign with a production company, they tell us what the show is going to be about and we look at what they produce in the end. We make sure the rough cut is what they said the show would be about,” Cole said.

Once the Army gave its blessing, OWN bypassed the pilot stage and ordered “Married” straight to series.

“I’ve been in TV a long time, and I know many producers have tried to do this concept and couldn’t get the access. We felt right when we had the casting of ‘Married to the Army’ that we needed to make a commitment not just for a pilot but for a stretch of time,” said Rita Mullin, OWN’s exec veepee of programming and development.

“These are very strong women who are dealing with so many aspects of life that other women deal with. There’s a story arc that we think is going to resonate with our core audience in a compelling way,” Mullin said.

Winfrey confirmed with Drachkovitch over the phone that they both aimed for a respectful and non-exploitative portrayal of the families that agreed to go on camera. With both Winfrey and Drachkovitch on the same creative page, “Married” lensed from March to July.

“Throughout production, we were asking the women, ‘Are you comfortable showing that? Sharing that?’” Drachkovitch said. “They shared their intimate fears and moments. They let us join them at therapy sessions. We watched our brigade commander’s wife pray with her husband over the phone. We attended two memorial services and saw when all seven husbands came home for R&R. There was very little that was off limits because they wanted to show their lives.”

The military hopes the show “connects America” with the families of those who serve, Cole said.

“This story doesn’t get told a lot on TV. If I walk down Wilshire Boulevard in my uniform, someone’s going to say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ But the Army spouses, they are serving as well.”

In addition to airing on OWN, “Married to the Army: Alaska” will be carried on the American Forces Radio and TV Network, which broadcasts to service members overseas.

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