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A Bibliography of Biography Programs

April 26, 1998|Noel Riley Fitch

Here's a look at the channels that offer biography series:

American Masters

PBS: PBS' "American Masters" is characterized by its scholarly research and creative camera work and editing. It has made relatively few biographies--only 83--which air occasionally, and has won more than 20 top awards, including an Oscar, Emmys, Peabodys and CINE Gold Eagles.

The series began with an innovative program on the filming of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." With its lengthy research and fund-raising, the early profile of the Algonquin Round Table (which won the Oscar) took 10 years to make, the Actors Studio seven. "Man Ray: Profile of the Avant-Garde," which aired last year, was rich in the use of his photographs and art (culled from 16 major archives and museums) as well as rare scenes of New York City and Paris. "Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart," which will air Thursday at 10 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28, illustrates again why PBS is head-and-shoulders above its competition.

Oddly, the producers of "American Masters" credit A&E for part of the program's superiority in recent years.

"The cables tested the commercial market and made our private fund-raising easier," says Chiz Schultz, who, with David Menair, is currently researching the biography of Paul Robeson that will air next February.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 28, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 8 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong channel--An article about TV biographies in Sunday Calendar listed the wrong outlet for a coming program about actress Louise Brooks. It will be shown May 5 on the Turner Classic Movies channel.

Biography THIS WEEK

A&E: First to take its biography series to a regular national daily slot (it's called "stripping") was A&E in 1994. It is the giant, running prime-time biographies at 5 and 9 p.m. daily, one for children on Saturday, and on Sunday an international biography in the morning and a two-hour biography in the evening. It has a library, not surprisingly, of more than 590 profiles.

This series is also the longest-running single-topic documentary series on commercial television. It has become the signature program of A&E, and has won several Emmys and CableACE's best documentary series. Because of volume, time constraints and budget (a producer is given about $60,000 to make a biography, which is considered minimal for a program of this length), they cannot match the PBS standard. (PBS spends between $500,000 and $600,000 on a program "and sometimes more," one PBS executive said.)

Unlike the PBS series, however, A&E's "Biography" has the means to commission any of the 500 available outside producers who develop segments for the show. It also can command the film archives of its three owners: Hearst, ABC and NBC.

What characterizes an A&E "Biography" is that it generally strikes a balance between the life and career of a person, though it occasionally focuses on celebrity and cashes in on headlines. For example, it produced biographies on Sonny Bono immediately after the skiing accident that killed him and on prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr in March before the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment case against President Clinton was dismissed. (Starr is investigating related matters.)

The network also occasionally features themes as a means of rerunning previously done biographies.

intimate PORTRAIT

Lifetime: "Intimate Portrait" on Lifetime, Television for Women, features only women--from Eve to Queen Latifah. Its strongly inspirational theme is suggested in its subtitles: "Out of the Shadows Into the Light" (Anjelica Huston), "From Doormat to Publishing Giant" (Katharine Graham) and "From Princess of Harlem to First Lady of Hollywood" (Diahann Carroll). The portraits focus on personal revelations and psychological explanations for successes and failures.

Lifetime's biographies, which moved from features in 1995 to weekly in 1996, now air weekdays. Because it relies heavily on the sit-down interview with living subjects, this series is the most autobiographical.

Bravo: The quality of "Profiles," founded in June 1997 by Bravo, the film and arts network, varies widely in part because it buys some of its profiles from other sources, including PBS and commercial British networks. "Profiles" runs weekly and focuses on the careers of contemporary performing artists (such as David Bowie), which means it uses lengthy performance clips.

One of its best productions was "An Elegy for Allen Ginsberg," which was full of detail and visual imagery meshed with his readings and a vast cast of friends, including Philip Glass and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Also its biography of musician Bjork, which is set to run today at 5 and 10:05 p.m., is beautifully evocative of Iceland and a serious analysis of her musical development.

*

E!: E! Entertainment has two biographical series, both made in-house. "The True Hollywood Story" (begun in 1996) presents what it calls "docu-drama specials" of one hour, many on troubled celebrities such as Robert Downey Jr., Bob Crane, Christian Slater and John Belushi.

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