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Dr. Koop Finds His Bulliest Pulpit Yet : Television: The outspoken former surgeon general hopes his five-part NBC series on health care 'makes people mad.'

June 03, 1991|DANIEL CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For eight years as U.S surgeon general, C. Everett Koop was alternately criticized and hailed for speaking his mind--launching an aggressive anti-smoking campaign, opposing abortion, promoting the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.

So when NBC signed Koop to host a five-part, prime-time series about the state of health care in America, former NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff made sure that the programs, produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, fell under the network's entertainment division.

"The reason he didn't want it in the news division is because this is not a documentary giving you Side A and Side B and letting you choose," Koop said. "This is old C. Koop's bias. I'm telling people what's right and wrong. The title of the show is 'C. Everett Koop, M.D.' This is how I feel about these things. I function better that way."

Nearly two years after resigning his office, exactly how does the 73-year-old Koop feel about things?

"There's nothing happening with health in the current Administration. Our biggest health-care problem is that we have no health system. I knew I would not be able to accomplish anything in that Administration, so I got out," Koop said from his home in Washington.

On NBC, where even the lowest-rated prime-time programs attract at least 5 million viewers, the former surgeon general will reach his widest audience yet on Tuesday at 10 p.m., when his first health special premieres.

Upon leaving office on Oct. 1, 1989, Koop vowed to reporters: "I will continue to deliver health messages to this country as long as people will listen." Today, he sees "C. Everett Koop, M.D." as a way to fulfill that vow.

"This series is primarily educational," said Koop, regarded as the father of prenatal surgery. "There's no other country that scrambles for health care like we do. There is less access to medical help for some people in the United States than there is in South Africa. And there is no other country where physicians end up with such debt that it affects their ethics and the kind of medicine they practice.

"It made me mad to produce this show. I hope it makes people mad to see it."

Some may be angry that they had to wait to see it.

The specials were announced by Tartikoff five days after Koop's resignation and were completed nearly eight months before NBC assigned them an air date. After Tuesday's premiere, the four remaining programs will be seen Sundays at 7 p.m.

"They're not playing at a great time," executive producer Philip Burton said. "NBC is doing the best it can, which is on Sunday opposite '60 Minutes.' I would have preferred five consecutive nights to build an audience."

"There was ongoing discussion about how to play the shows," said Rick Ludwin, vice president of variety, specials and late-night programming at NBC. "The decision was to play them away from original episodes of high-powered series on other networks, which meant airing them in the summer. These are five shows filled with important information, and with the glut of reruns on the air now, original episodes of this kind have the greatest chance of finding an audience."

Al Vecchione, president of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which had never worked in network prime-time before, was too grateful to knock NBC.

"The real achievement of this series is that it's going to get on the air," he said. "Five hours in prime time, on a commercial network, about a serious subject--in this case health care, dealt with in a serious way, no tricks, no fancy footwork--this kind of work just isn't done any more. The last thing like it was 'America's Defense' by CBS News a decade ago."

In Tuesday's installment, "Children at Risk," Koop investigates stories about childhood health care like Mike Wallace with a stethoscope. One moment he is interviewing a mother who used crack cocaine during pregnancy, the next moment he is hugging a terrified young boy after administering him an immunization shot.

"Television is a whole new medium for me," Koop said. "I've been on television an awful lot. But it's one thing appearing next to Charlie Gibson or Ted Koppel. Here I was carrying it by myself. And at the beginning, I felt I was stuck out there alone."

But Vecchione said Koop was a natural. "He is a very intimidating figure," Vecchione said. "There's something larger than life about him. A friend of his described him as looking like Jesus and sounding like Moses."

The specials shot for several months last year, moving across the United States with a different production crew for each episode. "That's a big job. It nearly killed me," Koop said. "The worst part is, I would film for 10 days with one crew, then they'd go home to put the show together, and I'd meet with another crew the next morning and start all over again. I felt like a basketball."

Koop, whose entry into television was the brainchild of high-power talent agent Norman Brokaw, chief executive officer of the William Morris Agency, has a memoir, "Koop," due to be published in September, and he travels around the country for about 50 speaking engagements a year.

"The life I've arranged for myself--these TV shows, the lecture series, the book I finished--I can handle it," he said. "What's killing me is that the public still sees me as a public servant. On a daily basis, my staff of three gets 45 requests a day for me to do things."

Next on Koop's agenda is a series of videocassettes for the elderly. He calls his television specials for NBC a "one-time thing" and said that he has no plans to pursue any more TV projects.

"I think television is a tough industry," he said. "They don't seem to know (that) anybody else has any problems or priorities, and theirs come first. And that takes a little effort to remind them there are other things going on in the world."

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