Junly 10, 2012
NEW YORK (AP) — Every day deadly serious things happen in a hospital. ABC opens its nonfiction summer series "NY Med" this week on a lighter note, following an emergency room patient who suffers a painful side effect to a drug designed to boost male sexual performance. There's only one way out, and it involves a needle.
An attractive young nurse, Marina Dedivanovic, looks on with a little sympathy and a lot of bemusement.
The rich vein of characters mined in Tuesday's debut — the famous heart surgeon, the young mother who must stay awake during her brain surgery, the cancer patient whose risky surgery fails, the resident with an angelic singing voice — marks "NY Med" with the signature of Terence Wrong, a producer whose work is unique today in broadcast television news.
The eight-episode "NY Med" takes narrative devices and character building techniques from fiction but is completely true, filmed by a team that immersed itself for four months in life at the Columbia and Weill Cornell Medical Centers of New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan.
It's Wrong's seventh limited-run summer series since 2000. Four have featured hospitals, opening with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, with others focused on dating, civil service workers in Boston and the New York Police Department.
"This is easily my best series," said Wrong, 55, pleased with the pace and weaving of stories in "NY Med."
A Princeton-educated journalist who speaks Arabic, Wrong spent much of the 1980s working in the Middle East in the 1980s for NBC and ABC. He got into long-form TV journalism upon returning to the United States, and the award-winning 1994 documentary "They Were Young & Brave" that revisited a major Vietnam War battle proved a career turning point. He began his first hospital series at the urging of ABC News executive Phyllis McGrady.
The goal was "to take cinema verite and make it commercial," he said.
For all the work involved, filming is often the easy part for Wrong and the two dozen people who work with him on a shoot. He must first convince insular organizations to give him free reign and trust he'll deliver an accurate portrait. Even if the bureaucracy agrees, individual doctors, nurses or patients often resent the cameras or, conversely, can't understand why Wrong doesn't see them as stars along the lines of Dr. Mehmet Oz.
Every day Wrong's team films 20 to 30 hours of tape on small, hand-held cameras. He keeps track of the work by asking each to identify the best five minutes of footage they captured each day. After four months of shooting, Wrong chooses the stories and characters to emphasize and fits them into hour-long episodes that will satisfy viewers who watch all eight or just one. He wants laughter and tears from his viewers, often in close proximity.
He lives for stories with odd or heartbreaking twists. In "NY Med," a heart transplant fails because the organ is damaged during transit, and a surgeon treats an oddball patient who eats metal. Recurring characters like the emergency room nurse Dedivanovic are followed and their lives outside medicine explored. One former patient — not the one with the aforementioned medical problem — returns with flowers to ask her on a date (she said yes, but it never happened). Later, she's propositioned by a dwarf stripper.
Technical innovations include the use of smaller cameras before they became a common fixture, and a narrator-less presentation unusual to documentaries. Wrong believes his news background, and the trust he had built with ABC executives, gave him a chance to do work others would not have been given.
His specialty has also emerged at a time of retrenchment and layoffs in the news industry, including at ABC. Wrong has a bit of Woody Allen's neuroses and nervousness about him, and constantly wonders if each series is his last.
"It's not a given that you are going to succeed," he said. "By the time you have failed, you would have spent a good portion of your budget. I have worried about it every second."
While a significant commitment in time and personnel, the series still cost less than fictional dramas, said former ABC News President David Westin. ABC entertainment executives, who must schedule the limited-run series, have generally been impressed by them, he said. They do reasonably well in the ratings and fill summertime holes in the schedule for ABC, whose scripted series don't do well in reruns.
"Terry embraced this early on and came to own it and make it his own," Westin said. "He was very passionate and dedicated and developed the techniques as we went along. He was in the right place at the right time and was the right person."
Wrong is encouraged by support from ABC's new management team of Ben Sherwood and James Goldston. Goldston had a few suggestions that left Wrong "scratching my head," but they ultimately improved "NY Med," he said.
The first episode seems vulnerable to questions about sensationalism, especially with an opening segment on an erection that lasts several hours. The next segment is about Dr. Oz, the talk show host who is also a heart surgeon at New York-Presbyterian; Wrong said Oz was selected for more than his fame.
"I would never have done that if it wasn't as strong a story," he said. "You can justify putting him in the show editorially, and also justify it strategically."
With "NY Med" ready to air, Wrong is talking to ABC management about future series ideas.
"The ultimate joy of any editor or documentarian is to work and shape narratives out of raw footage and to find the story in the raw material," he said. "We never get tired of that. If you get tired of that, move to fiction. I want to do that forever — until they kick me out."