The Digital Journalist

by Ron Steinman

The television mini-series "Hooking Up" on ABC television may have passed you by. If so, consider yourself lucky. Just because you missed it on its first go around does not mean you will not have the opportunity to see it again. I am certain ABC News will play it repeatedly, anywhere, and at anytime. After all, news divisions must make money and "Hooking Up" will most probably have its share of repeated plays.

In the same week in which ABC News gave Peter Jennings a dignified farewell, "Hooking Up" - dubbed a documentary - ended its brief run with a merciful whimper, and not a moment too soon. I am sure I heard a collective sigh of relief from those in the news business who care - that is, if anyone took the time to listen. In the executive suite at ABC News, they must have been loading up with Paxil and other anti-depressants to keep from too many sudden mood swings with all the other serious problems, despite "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," which the network faces. I am sure that a heavy dose of Vicodin would work just fine to further dull their creative awareness. Where is Dr. House when we need him?

What I am about to write will not be a traditional namby-pamby review, but rather a stick in the eye to ABC News for sanctioning this tripe in the first place. "Hooking Up" was a travesty.

A modicum of fame in TV news brings with it major delusion. The latest culprits are ABC News, its series "Hooking Up," and a producer named Terry Wrong. This five-part series followed, according to a press release, "a year's worth of trials and tribulations - the connections, the rejections, the outright disasters of 12 Manhattan women from 25-38 as they searched for a mate through Internet dating services." That is some mouthful. ABC News has taken a header downward. Pride does come before a fall, especially when everyone is watching. Were ratings so important at ABC that its once proud news organization had to stoop so low in the reprehensible world of reality TV? Sad. Very sad. But then the drive for ratings by modern news organizations is nothing new. I am not surprised, only shocked with how the news division "punked" the audience. Problem is, this series of tainted shows, if successful, will presage more in the future. But from ABC News, whom I thought was better than that?

I would like to write a rant, but my anger and disappointment would get in the way of my saying anything constructive. This review, then, will be unlike any you will find elsewhere.

First, there is nothing remotely redeeming about the ABC News mess called "Hooking Up." ABC News and its producer, Terry Wrong, call the series a documentary. What was management thinking when it allowed this to go forward under the aegis of the respected Terrence Wrong? Did he convince his bosses he would achieve success by applying the same techniques - lightweight, small digital cameras, and hundreds of hours of shooting on the fly - he used to produce the well-received series "Hopkins 24/7," "Boston 24/7" and "NYPD 24/7"? Each of those programs was a documentary. They had style, a point of view, even some breakthrough techniques, and subjects worthy of serious inspection.

I felt ashamed for ABC News, where I spent six fruitful years with ABC News Productions. "Hooking Up" was an embarrassment. Shame on ABC News for putting on such a trifle as this waste of time proved to be, especially under the guise of a documentary film. It was a program I expected to see on "E," "In Style," "We" or "Oxygen." Or any number of tabloid shows that are on free TV and cable. ABC News, where are your values?

I probably assume too much. Maybe ABC News knew what it was doing and did not care. Thinking about it, that is probably what happened. ABC News saw an opportunity to get good ratings at a price well below that of a scripted show or even a simple reality show. Numbers in TV always count more than ethics.

A decent, perhaps even a forgiving review would be easy to write. The show is here today, then gone tomorrow, quickly out of our consciousness like the fumes from a passing city bus. In this regard, too many of our so-called TV and media critics missed the opportunity to call "Hooking Up" what it is: a slick reality show in the guise of a serious documentary. Because ABC News and Terry Wrong called the series a documentary, most critics accepted it as one. Most of them probably think the documentary form needs sharpening anyway, which it does, and a loosening of structure, which it might, but that depends on the subject and the honesty of the reporting and shooting. Doing a reality show in the guise of a documentary is not the answer for a once reliable news division.

Listen in for a moment to what Terry Wrong said in his defense of the project when The New York Times asked, "Doesn't this come awfully close to reality television territory?" Wrong said, " Honestly, I don't think we walk that line. Our participants don't sign ironclad contracts. We don't shoot them on a set with cameras and boom mics and gaffers. We don't tell the women who to go out with, what to do - we can't control what happens. And there's no prize."

Does Wrong believe we are so naïve as to believe he and his teams of camera people and producers did not control the situations, the shooting, the repeated shots and repeated angles to aid the editors in cutting the five hours into reasonably coherent shows? Obviously, he does or he would not have said what he did, a statement that frankly leaves him swaying in the wind as a target, deluding himself as he tries to delude us. I do not care what techniques a producer uses; a reality show by any other name is just that, a reality show. Terry Wrong is being less than candid when he wriggles inside semantics to justify his project. Just because there is no set, it does not make it a less appalling exercise for a news division. Perhaps Wrong and ABC News did not surf cable television enough to see the many reality shows that shoot on the fly and themselves copy techniques of the documentary to justify what they do.

Reality shows are not as simple as they look. The producers stage things. The situations are not real. Reality means unscripted, except that the producers have an outline of what they want and how they want a scene to turn out. Yes, there is the unexpected, but that usually comes in the interaction of the carefully cast participants. Producers of reality shows hope their casting will result in, at the very least, verbal combat. More often than not they succeed, and that is what people talk about the next morning around the water cooler.

I wonder, how many times did ABC News shoot a scene to get the exact camera angle, to get the exact facial expression, to get the best reaction? How many cameras followed each couple, then each person before, during, and after their date? Did anyone not consider how constricted the people in the series would be under all that scrutiny, especially when interacting as couples? Nothing in the five hours looked natural, felt natural, and was natural.

Simply put, "Hooking Up" was a reality show disguised as a documentary to lure in an audience titillated for years by "Sex in the City" and the many knockoffs on "We" and "Oxygen." At least these were not pretentious - or worse, produced by a reputable news organization.

Someone at ABC News took a sucker punch when they agreed to produce and then air "Hooking Up." The whole network went down for the count. OK, ABC News, what is your next stratagem after "Hooking Up?" I can hardly wait.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.