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On board with reality

The Navy got to review 'Carrier,' on PBS, but didn't insist on a spit-polish product.

April 26, 2008|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

One SAILOR calmly tells the camera that America went to war for oil. Another, while slurring drunk and again when stone sober, is shown making racist comments. Yet another naval serviceman, who counsels crew members about sexually appropriate behavior, is caught having sex with a shipmate of a lower rank.

Later, a fighter pilot openly questions the rationale for the Iraq war and mulls over the morality of bombing the war-torn country. And finally, a range of enlisted personnel and officers plainly voice disappointment over not dropping bombs during their mission.

While by themselves these incidents may sound like the stuff of enemy propaganda, they are in fact part of a much larger message entirely approved by the United States Navy -- which is somewhat nervously hoping that by allowing itself to look bad in places, it can look good overall.

The American public can watch what may be one of the riskier and more unconventional public relations strategies in U.S. naval history unfold on PBS' "Carrier," a 10-hour documentary series about life aboard an aircraft carrier during wartime. The program, which clearly bears the stamp of reality television, premieres Sunday night on KCET-TV and most PBS stations across the nation and runs throughout the week.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, May 03, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
'Carrier': An article in the April 26 Calendar section about the PBS documentary series "Carrier" said negotiations between the filmmakers and the Navy to make the show took about a year. It also omitted the role of series co-creator Mitchell Block. In fact, negotiations lasted about three years and closely involved Block.

"There's a city of 5,000 on an aircraft carrier," said Adm. Ted Branch, who was captain and commander of the Nimitz when the documentary was shot in 2005. "They're all people and they all have opinions. They aren't robots.

"I think what may be surprising for our people is to see it on film," added Branch, who has since been promoted and now works in the Pentagon. "But it's not surprising it happened."

Unlike with its one-dimensional recruitment ads that invite young Americans to "Accelerate Your Life," the Navy did not pay for a camera crew to chronicle the warship's six-month deployment that began and ended in Coronado, and covered 57,000 ocean miles including a combat mission into the Persian Gulf. The Navy paid instead by surrendering almost total editorial control to the filmmakers, who promised military officials they were out to capture the human stories inside the nuclear-powered ship's massive steel hulls.

"The Navy participated in and supported movies like 'Top Gun' and 'Pearl Harbor,' " said Maro Chermayeff, who directed, co-executive produced and co-created the series, which was bankrolled by Mel Gibson's Icon Productions. "But they were always about the hotshot pilots; they were never about the ordinary 19-year-old sailor on the ship."

The unusually candid and personal portrait of life aboard the Nimitz prompted Adm. Gary Roughead, the United States Navy's chief of naval operations, to e-mail approximately 1,000 senior active, reserve and retired officers, and civilian executives, earlier this month to explain why the Navy agreed to the series, and to allay fears about the program's potential negative impact.

"We did not get a Navy 'commercial' in the traditional sense," wrote Roughead, a member of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and the senior military officer in the Department of the Navy. " 'Carrier' is very different from the hardware documentaries we have supported in the past. This program focuses on our people and the reality-TV approach gives it a sense of authenticity and credibility. Since we did not monitor the individual interviews and ongoing production, the program contains material that does not always and fully represent the discipline, values and mission of the U.S. Navy."

'An all-inclusive picture'

The PBS series lands during an especially challenging time for military recruiters. As the unpopular Iraq war drags on, all branches of the military are finding it increasingly difficult to attract new volunteers. Although the Navy met its recruiting goals last year of approximately 37,000 and is on track to do so again this year, it's spending more money to achieve those figures. The Navy spent $169 million in advertising last year, compared to $117 million in the previous year.

But the series provides the Navy with a new and welcome platform to reach what Pentagon officials call the "influencers" -- the parents, relatives, teachers, coaches and other adults who help determine whether a young person ultimately signs up for the services. Several years ago, the Army developed a series of successful ads that specifically targeted adults who had no military experience -- not unlike PBS' audience pool.

"This production, although not an all-inclusive picture of the Navy, will give potential recruits and those who influence them a glimpse of what life is really like in the Navy," wrote Roughead, whose e-mail was published on several blogs.

In summing up "Carrier," Roughead said: "The snapshot is frank and may be somewhat disconcerting to some who came into the Navy some time ago. However, that said, I believe it will also resonate with a significant segment of our country."

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