On a recent Sunday, primetime delivered Joey Buttafuco,
Patricia Richardson, Billy Joel, George Mallory and Loni Anderson.
Wednesday night featured Ronald Reagan, Natalie Merchant,
Mick Foley, John DeLorean, Pierce Brosnan and Patricia Routledge.
And viewers who hadn't gotten their fill of real-person
stories could still feast on made-for-TV portraits of Orson Welles, Pamela Smart and Mary,
Mother of Jesus.
Nightly, across the cable bands, it is nearly possible to
watch all-biography, all the time.
"I remember when the critics said, 'How in the world
can you take a newsmagazine from three to four hours a week?'" recalled Cameron
Blanchard, a spokeswoman for MSNBC, which in September premiered Headliners and Legends,the news-oriented biography show hosted by Matt Lauer. "But you have 20/20,
you've got 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II,all with healthy audiences.
Biographies are the next genre we're exploring."
Following the success of near-life fictional dramas, cable
networks caught the lure of biography shows in the early 1990s, and they have launched a
flurry of variations that haven't let up.
Despite speculation that only the strongest would survive,
there are few, if any, casualties to report so far.
Established programs -- including the dean of the genre,
A&E Network's 12-year-old Biography -- are spawning spinoffs. And shows that
aren't expressly about a person's life also bank on biographical content to delve into
issues, eras and discoveries.
Upstarts, meanwhile, are pouring on the celebrity profiles
to shore up their own identities as they dabble in program development.
"If you step back and take a broader look at the
factors contributing, you see cable delivering on the promise of choice," said Greg
Brannan, executive producer of programming and content for E! Entertainment Television,
which has E! True Hollywood Story and two other biographical-themed shows --
playing and replaying at least 10 hours per week -- devoted to drama and scandal in the
lives of Hollywood figures.
"You can have a network like E! focused on an
entertainment theme, another one devoted to sports, another to music," Brannan added.
"It seemed very unlikely when we were watching shows like Dragnet that we
could envision a world of 60 channels in everyone's home and catered to everyone's
Want to grab ratings in health programming? Do a special
called Lance Armstrong: Competing with Cancer, as Discovery Health Channel is
doing, and get the eventual Tour de France winner to discuss how he nearly died after
ignoring warning signs for testicular cancer.
Want to add dimension to your financial report? Go to
weekly interviews with established tycoons and up-and-comer multimillionaires -- Cable
News Network's Pinnacle and Movers fare, respectively.
Want to corner the market on criminal-justice interests? No
need to make the stuff up. "Our viewers want to know, 'When did a certain person go
bad? What makes a criminal tick?' There's an endless fascination," said Art Bell,
executive vice president for strategic planning and programming at Courtroom Television
Court TV plans to supplement Crime Stories, its
documentary series on famous crimes, with Mug Shots, centering on the all-time
worst bad guys, such as Jeffrey Dahmer. "You've always seen dramatic characters drawn
in fictional series," Bell noted. "And as they say, there's nothing stranger
Another tightly drawn biography show is Lifetime
Television's Intimate Portrait, near-autobiographical profiles of women often
interviewed by close friends.
Even within the entertainment milieu, the shows strive to
distinguish themselves: Inside the Actors Studio -- one of a duo of biographical
shows Bravo airs -- is a sit-down with an arts figure, such as Paul Newman or Robert De
Niro, who discusses how he or she composes or creates a character. Under this format,
geared toward an upscale audience, a guest airs his or her personal life only insofar as
it advances the story of the creative process. He or she may or may not perform.
Not so with pop-culture buffet laid out by MTV: Music
Television and VH1, which juxtapose interviews, music and video clips to piece together a
celebrity's story on and off the stage or screen.
VH1 wouldn't go Behind the Music without music and
plenty of background, listing the emotional segment on Milli Vanilli as a typical success.
"We may spend more money on the music clearance than on anything else in the
show," VH1 executive producer of programming and production Jeff Gaspin said.
Behind the Music also shines its klieg lights on a
phenomenon such as Woodstock. "We can coexist," Gaspin said. "E! doesn't do
that many music stories, and Biography doesn't use much music."
He was quick to note that duplication between Behind the
Music and sister station MTV's BIOrhythm is minimized since the latter appeals
to a younger audience. "They'll do the Backstreet Boys, which we would not," he
added. "We'd do the [Rolling] Stones."
MTV executive vice president of programming Brian Graden
seemed to agree with Gaspin that MTV tackles artists in shows like BIOrhythm that
are lesser-known, and that typically don't get coverage in more mainstream media.
In addition to BIOrhythm, MTV has two new
biographical-type shows in the works, according to Graden. "They are both cousins of
the biography-type series," he added.
The first show is Diary,in which the network
follows a group on tour. "It's not a biography series, but it hits all of the same
beats," Graden said.
The second new show is On the Road Home with
which MTV travels back to a group's or artist's hometown with them, meeting teachers,
friends and relatives, according to Graden.
The thrust toward profiles is in part an economic decision,
with few shows willing to discuss the costs. But most acknowledged that interviews and
tape are less expensive to produce than docudramas or original sitcoms, which require
No matter how hard a show about a person tries to be
different from another show about a person, it remains to be seen how many ways cable can
slice a pie. Even if a Biography Madonna isn't quite the same story as an MTV
Madonna or a Madonna Intimate Portrait, it's still Madonna, and she's been analyzed
on just about every show.
Acknowledging the dangers of duplication, Bravo senior vice
president of programming Frances Berwick said Bravo Profiles or Inside the
Actors Studio will occasionally pass on a star who is currently well-exposed on the
talk-show circuit while hawking a tour or album.
Executives acknowledged that they've collided and crashed
into one another in the celebrity arena.
"E! and I have bumped heads," Gaspin said.
"They did Studio 54 the same night as us. I actually called them to ask if they could
delay a week, and we'd return the favor another time, since mine was a season premiere.
They said no."
Perhaps it is not surprising that Biography, an
originator of the genre, is most apt to sniff about the neophytes and predict their
"We came on the scene first and established ourselves,
and all of these cable networks said, 'Let us spin off this,'" Biography executive
producer CarolAnne Dolan said. "We do shows on everyone, but they're going to run out
of subject matter. They may burn brightly for a little while, but I don't see them as a
Certainly the only show in television to do portraits of
both Jesse Ventura and Julius Caesar, Biography sets the standard, having profiled
more than 700 people in its often-hard-hitting journalistic way -- "womb to the
tomb," as host Harry Smith puts it.
In addition, Biography --which has its roots
in the 1960s Mike Wallace-hosted show of the same name -- is the only profile that does
not rely on the permission of the subject.
And as other shows work hard to associate themselves with a
niche, Biography resolutely resists being pegged. Not only is its lens likely to
zoom in on people in every imaginable field, but the show tends to brand the channel,
rather than being defined by it.
Its Nielsen Media Research ratings remain steady -- a 1.51
average for the 8 p.m. airing -- unscathed by the rest, A&E said.
But competition appears to be making Biography hipper.
"We may have opened up our field of people a little
bit," Dolan said. "We're doing a show next year on Sam Phillips, the founder of
Sun Records. We wouldn't have done that a year or two ago. We didn't used to do many
people in rock 'n' roll."
While showing reverence for Biography, competitors
maintained that cable has plenty of room for all manner of bio shows, although it is
probably too soon to say because the category is expanding so quickly.
After a slow start in late September, Headliners and
Legends -- which has profiled Elvis Presley, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Sen. John
McCain (R-Ariz.) -- rose 8 percent in its 10 p.m. Sunday slot, MSNBC said, to average a
0.3, or 166,000 households.
CNN said People Profiles, the 11-segment
people-in-the-news show that aired through July, averaged 0.8 ratings, or about 575,000
households -- more than double the average of its non-news-breakers.
Court TV -- which acquired NBC's dark drama, Homicide:
Life in the Street -- said pairing Homicide with Crime Stories has
contributed to a primetime rise from 0.1 to 0.6 this year.
The E! True Hollywood Story,starting its fourth
year, has posted a recent average of 0.83 for Sunday-night premieres and 0.5 in primetime,
making it one of the network's top-rated series.
Intimate Portrait averages a 1.0 rating, equal to
740,000 households, defining Lifetime and earning the channel acclaim for its attention to
BravoProfiles commands an overall 0.3 average,
according to Berwick, who said the audience has remained loyal. "Certain artists skew
much higher -- like when we air a show on Madonna, Abba or Michael Flatley -- to a 0.5 or
0.6," she said. "People want to understand what creates genius, and I don't
think that fascination will ever die away."
Biography starts the millennium with a presidential
theme. A new Biography of George Washington will focus on the military-genius
aspect of America's father. The series will also premiere a George Washington movie,
starring Jeff Daniels, portraying a figure at once a household name and largely unknown.
Why run for president? Smith asks this question in a Biography
special of the same name launching in late January.
"We did interviews with Michael Dukakis, George Bush
the president, Gary Hart, Dan Quayle, Jerry Brown," Smith said. "In this day and
age, when the press takes a tough and, some would say, an unfair stand, nobody in TV gets
to all of this."
A&E spinoff The Biography Channel, created a year ago,
continues to gain distribution.
Lifetime recently hired Meredith Vieira, of ABC's The
View,as the moderator of Intimate Portrait.
VH1's Behind the Music will extend the nonfiction
concept to events such as Tipper Gore's case for record censorship. Also expect Behind
the Music II, half-hour biographies of young artists.
CNN is in talks with Time Warner Inc. sibling People magazine
on a biography show.
Bravo Profiles commemorates Black History Month in
February with stories of Louis Armstrong, Isaac Hayes and Charles Mingus.
Speaking of Armstrong, don't forget Lance, the star of
Discovery Health's first first-person special devoted to health and medicine.
The network has also commissioned 15 episodes of a program
called Chicago Lifeline, which follows interns, doctors and patients at the
University of Chicago Medical Center. The show will be different from a glimpse into an
emergency room, as the same people will be revisited each edition.
Sister network Discovery Channel recently focused on the
people behind a just-excavated Siberian mammoth, and Discovery Health acknowledged that
the storytelling approach to science is a far cry from The Big World of Little Adam.
"There's so much information out there, it's
confusing. It boggles the mind," Discovery Health Media Inc. director of
communications Annie Howell said. "We want to sort through it and make it
Court TV's upcoming Mug Shots is typical of the
de-emphasis on fiction that might have been foreshadowed with the ratings success of the
O.J. Simpson trial. In fact, the move to real life follows the popularity of television
fiction that feelsreal. Before that, primetime didn't try so hard to be
Witness the drastic differences between Dragnet's"Just the facts, ma'am" cops and NYPD Blue's Andy Sipowicz, whose bad
habits and moods are crucial to the story. And Lifetime said Intimate Portrait's
success comes from the knowledge that average people like to see others -- even if they
are famous -- with problems and flaws.
"TV got buttonholed," said Tim Uehlinger,
executive producer for MSNBC's Headliners and Legends. "There wasn't much
competition, and the 'Big Three' networks felt that sitcoms, variety shows and news shows
were all you had to do. It's a very positive state of affairs for our business that this
genre has taken off. You can tell the story of the person next door and make it
interesting. There are life lessons in everything."