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Truth is as strong as fiction on tube

Docus gain foothold on PBS, cable

It’s the “Survivor” after-effect — popular network reality shows have brought a new audience to “really real” nonfiction programming on cable and PBS.

Viewership and ratings are up for non-fiction series, say execs for both cabler HBO’s “America Undercover” and PBS’s “P.O.V.” showcase.

“Documentaries air in an entertainment context on HBO,” points out Nancy Abraham, VP of original programming, HBO. “They successfully play in that environment and hold their own.” A total of 64 million viewers in 51 million homes, for example, tuned in for “America Undercover Sundays” this past season.

“There’s a sensibility that indie work is worthwhile and that it’s entertaining,” agrees Cara Mertes, exec producer of “P.O.V.,” which is midway through its 14th annual season.

PBS plans to expand its time slots to 16, adding specials year round. Considering that 600 entries are submitted for the annual run, Mertes explains that the series is curated rather than commissioned.

“We respond to filmmakers. The series reflects broad interests, what’s best in indie film and what filmmakers are responding to in society today,” adds the production exec.

Upcoming for “P.O.V.”: Hannah Weyer’s look at migrant life at the U.S.-Mexican border, “La Boda,” N.Y. filmmaker Stephanie Black’s portrait of the effects of globalization in Jamaica, “Life and Debt,” and after three years in production, “5 Girls” from director Maria Finitzo and Kartemquin Films (“Hoop Dreams”).

Non-fiction filmmakers are considered by many to be the truest independents. Most documentaries are financed out of pocket, by foundation grants, and by goodwill. Many end up with a deficit, a small percentage receive a national broadcast, and a select few have a theatrical release, although docs rarely garner significant box-office coin.

“Getting through the process will kill you unless you have a project you’re passionate about,” says Maria Finitzo whose filmmaking odyssey began in 1996 with a proposal for PBS.

Her doc, “5 Girls,” follows the lives of five Chicago teenagers. Finitzo shot more than 180 hours of footage resulting in a tightly woven look at adolescent development that cuts across class lines.

Reaching out

Finitzo lauds “P.O.V.” for providing a home and identity for independents. A national outreach campaign is underway which includes use of “5 Girls” by girl and parent groups as well as a Web site that streams material not used in the film (www.pov.org).

“I see a film’s broadcast as an advertisement for future uses,” says Cara Mertes. “Social issue docs have a real shelf life and a tremendous potential to play a huge role in public life.”

In conjunction with the broadcast, “P.O.V.” encourages interaction through its Web sites for each individual film, fosters community outreach through its High Impact Television campaigns and allows viewers to become part of the broadcast loop by encouraging talking back via email, letters, phone or via video.

Alan Berliner’s “The Sweetest Sound,” a postmodern meditation on individuality, aired on “P.O.V.” nationwide in June. Within 30 seconds of its broadcast, Berliner began to receive email about the program, which multiplied as the show broadcast across time zones. More than 500 email responses have been posted on the pov.org web address since “The Sweetest Sound’s” premiere.

“Viewers now have names; It changes the sense of community and makes the audience tangible,” comments Berliner. After four of his films aired on “P.O.V.,” Berliner is used to sparking dialogue via his personal essays.

“Through the Internet, it’s now a communication of thoughts and ideas in three directions: filmmaker to viewer, viewer to filmmaker and then intra-audience, viewer to viewer.”

Nancy Abraham notes HBO subscribers are drawn to non-fiction because it is “a different viewing experience. A lot of so-called reality shows make what we’re doing so much more different and unique. They put into relief and highlight what we continue to do: verite that is observational, gripping and almost movie-like.”

For the last decade, HBO’s commissioned docs have been standouts at Oscar and Emmy time. Cinemax’s “Big Mama,” directed by Tracy Seretean, won the Academy Award for short documentary subject earlier this year; “Legacy” and “Long Night’s Journey Into Day” were HBO projects that received nods for feature doc. This year’s Emmy nominations include 12 for HBO non-fiction work including specials and the “Taxicab Confessions” series.

HBO’s enviable track record can be attributed in part to the luxury of time.

“Our filmmakers have the ability to stick with a story until it’s fully realized, following people over time through life issues” says Abraham.

HBO’s original programming department receives more than 1,000 submissions annually. Docs for HBO are financed in-house; acquisitions usually air on Cinemax’s showcase for indie production “Reel Life” series. Although Oscar winner “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport” was acquired for broadcast on HBO this fall.

In March 2002 the cabler will premiere its second season of “America Undercover Sundays,” including a doc featuring former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, answering questions without legal restrictions.

The fall season of “Cinemax Reel Life” features Mira Nair’s “The Laughing Club of India,” with its companion virtual laughing club online at cinemax.com; Kirby Dick’s “Chain Camera,” a look at urban high school life told through students’ own lenses; and Paul Carlin’s “Salgado: the Spectre of Hope,” a chronicle of the famous photographer’s philosophy and life.

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