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ABC News starts its own reality program with a study of Boston

By David Bauder, The Associated Press
Saturday June 08, 2002

NEW YORK – Running a city is not particularly glamorous work. 

ABC News, wisely, doesn’t try to pretend otherwise in “Boston 24/7,” its six-episode series that premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. It can still inform and entertain television viewers, though. 

“Boston 24/7” is one of three nonfiction series the network is airing this summer, all of which use a narrative style. 

“We’re trying to experiment with formats and take them as far as we can,” ABC News President David Westin said. 

Each one, to a certain extent, is an outgrowth of the successful “Hopkins 24/7” series two years ago that followed doctors and patients at a Baltimore hospital over the course of several months. 

Later in June, the network will air “State v.,” another five-episode series that shows real-life criminal trials in Phoenix. The news drama includes footage of juries deliberating the fate of defendants. 

The third series, set for August, documents human stories at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital. 

Boston was chosen as a series setting primarily because its mayor, Thomas Menino, offered the unfettered access that other cities under consideration — Baltimore, Washington and Chicago — would not. Menino agreed to have cameras trail him virtually everywhere for three months. 

Besides giving an inside view of what Menino’s job is like, the series trails his press secretary, a homicide detective, two prosecutors, a reporter and a principal at a tough city high school. 

“The legal folks said I shouldn’t do it,” Menino said. “Friends of mine in the media said, ‘Are you crazy?’ I thought it was important because it was about the people who make the city work.” 

ABC’s cameras watch the mayor and his staff as they prepare for a major snowstorm and strategize privately on how to deal with the media. His press secretary, Carole Brennan, goes toe to toe over the phone with a reporter and the screen shows the exasperated faces on both sides. 

The segments on police detective Danny Coleman are ugly. Cameras show the body of a drug overdose victim (obscuring the face) sprawled on the floor of a fast-food restaurant bathroom, and the bloody body of a store owner as paramedics try unsuccessfully to save him after he was shot. 

In another story weaved throughout the hour, prosecutor Kelly Downes works to raise the bail of an alleged sexual assaulter who sliced the body of his victim with a sword. 

Despite the gruesome aspect of their work, it’s depicted as just that — work. It’s more mundane than gripping, even if ABC keeps the viewer in mild suspense about how the cases play out. 

Menino seemed to enjoy the surveillance by a network news team — certainly more than the local reporters who cover his administration every day — even though he hasn’t seen ABC’s final product. 

“Some days they were a real pain in the neck,” said the mayor, who visited ABC’s New York offices recently to see a few video clips of the special. “I wanted to kill them. But other days we had real fun together.” 

With the three series, along with regular episodes of “Primetime Thursday” and ”20/20,” ABC is depending on its news division more than ever this summer for prime-time entertainment. The network is doing so poorly there aren’t many other options. 

But summer has become the best time of year for broadcast network news divisions to showcase long-form programming. In a sea of reruns and faux reality, newsmagazines and other news shows offer fresh, first-run alternatives.