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Behind the Scenes 24/7
The ABC News team searches for the star power that will fuel its next true-life medical miniseries

It’s been six years since ABC News shot Hopkins 24/7, the Emmy-award winning, six-part miniseries that took viewers inside the world of academic medicine. Now, a similar documentary is in the making at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, only this time the focus will be on residents.

Since February, an ABC News team of 16 producers and videographers has been operating out of an office on the first floor of Carnegie. Among them are some of the same video journalists who shot the original series.

So far, they’ve connected with department chiefs, residency directors and dozens of residents themselves. Working in teams of two, carefully schooled in hospital protocols and HIPAA, they’ve been in and out of ORs, EDs, clinics and conference rooms—an unobtrusive presence on grand rounds, walk rounds, case conferences and more.

Each day, they shoot up to 20 or 30 hours of material. Then, executive producer Terry Wrong reviews the highlights in search of the characters and cases that will make the final cut.

What is he looking for? Compelling cases. Ultimately, he’ll need six major cases, one for each hour. To find them, he is casting a wide net. In just one week in March, for instance, crews covered brain surgery and two liver transplants. In the pediatric ED, they followed two young victims of a car accident. In the PICU, it was a toddler waiting for a heart. On Nelson 2, the birth of a baby at 28 weeks. In the adult ED, all manner of trauma.

Intercut with the cases will be stories about interns and residents—their work, training and private lives. Showing the public how some of the best physicians in the world are trained is the goal. To attain it, Wrong will need some real star power—interns and residents who he describes as “extroverted, confident and user-friendly.”

Wrong spent 15 years covering wars and revolutions all over the world before specializing in the documentary form. Post 24/7, he produced several other documentaries, but none, he says, were quite as satisfying. “After Johns Hopkins, I never had characters who were quite as articulate, people working at the highest levels, routinely confronting life and death.”

This time around, however, Wrong is up against some tough competition. “There are more cable channels, television is more fractured, and there is far more reality TV. This, though, will be a serious and sustained documentary series. It’s an unprecedented, extraordinary opportunity to put six hours of high-end medicine before the largest audience in TV.

“But it’s a real flier,” Wrong continues. “We don’t know what will happen. Some of the cases we follow will have poor outcomes, and you can’t have something that is unremittingly bleak. In all of television, including prime time news magazines, you know how the story turns out. You have the plot, you backfill with interviews. This is cinema verite. We don’t know where it will take us. It’s terribly risky and nerve racking.”

One thing is certain, though. On television, hospitals resonate. “In a hospital, viewers think, That could be me, that could be someone in my family. There’s a universal quality in a medical series, and when you infuse that with strong characters, you have a form you can’t miss with.”

The ABC News team is working under a comprehensive agreement between ABC Television Network, The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins University. The six-part documentary is expected to air in the summer of 2008.

—Anne Bennett Swingle

 

 

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