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THE BRITS DOC AROUND THE CLOCK

This is about documentaries.

Don’t doze. Lift those lids. Try to stay awake. Documentaries can be fun.

I saw one here on the BBC that was a real hoot, a 50-minute program--"The Boys From the Smelly Stuff"--about central London’s garbage collectors. Pure creme de la muck it was, displaying a keen sense of humor and smell.

TV in Britain can be as tedious and parochial as superb. Documentaries, though, are one of the areas where the Brits soar. In numbers, if not always quality.

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There are nighttime docs, daytime docs and you can practically doc around the clock. The British just love doing documentaries. Theirs are numerous and diverse, rich and bawdy, serious and frothy. And watching them, CBS London correspondent Tom Fenton noted the other day, “makes you realize the paucity of what we do.”

Look at the figures:

The same non-commercial BBC that imports America’s trashy “Dallas” and “Dynasty” makes a whopping 125 documentaries a year for its two channels, ranging from 30 to 75 minutes in length. BBC docs are as routine as tea. Channel hopping one morning--yes, morning --I found a fascinating BBC rerun charting Hitler’s rise. Old, but still expert storytelling.

Britain’s commercial ITV is less prolific, but still produces a combined three weekly hours of separate documentaries and documentary-style public-affairs series like “World in Action” that focus on single subjects. On a recent Sunday night, for example, ITV’s weekly “South Bank Show” tucked you in with a stunning 65-minute program on Truman Capote.

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The ITV figures do not include Britain’s commercial Channel Four, moreover, which ended a recent night with two documentaries, a timely hour on oil followed by a zzzzzzz-rated hour--so nobody’s perfect--on British ferries.

Nor do the BBC numbers include such specialized public-affairs series as the often jolting “Panorama,” a weekly investigative program that on a recent Monday night aired a devastating 40-minute expose of Western businessmen allegedly helping Iraq with deadly chemical weapons for its war with Iran.

Here are the paltry figures for American national TV:

ABC--eight hours in calendar 1986, matching pay cable HBO’s eight hours. NBC--six hours in 1985-86. CBS, nine hours in 1986. These figures exclude ABC’s “20/20" and “Our World,” NBC’s “1986" and CBS’ “60 Minutes” and “West 57th.”

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TV documentaries--due in part to the sexy shorthand of “60 Minutes” and its pretenders--are clearly ebbing in the United States, on a back burner, almost off the stove. In fact, specialized Cable News Network--with 31 hours in 1986--and especially PBS--with 218 hours in 1986 from “Frontline,” Britain and other sources--are the only national broadcasters truly in the documentary business.

Neither, though, gets U.S. penetration matching the BBC’s in Britain.

“PBS lives on the fringes of broadcasting and we are the center,” said George Carey, one of four executive producers under BBC documentary chief Will Wyatt. “A lot of people say the BBC is too big and should be broken up, but its very massiveness is its strength.”

Why do Brits dote on docs?

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“It’s a peculiar ecology of this country,” said Carey, who also has lived in New York. And one that no one seems able to explain, beyond citing tradition.

American documentaries “always have to be on serious, probing or glum subjects,” said Wyatt, obviously excluding the usually comic minidocs that litter local newscasts in ratings sweeps months. “You have to do those kind (serious docs), but we also like to do amusing ones that emphasize humor and character.”

It’s tempting to conclude that docs are automatically big draws in a four-TV channel (although heavily VCR’d) nation lacking the small-screen options of partially cable-wired America. For example, 10 million viewers tuned in to “Animal Squad,” a recent six- parter on Britain’s feisty animal-protection movement.

“The popularity of documentaries is an assumption rather than a fact,” said Carey, who was instrumental in making a controversial BBC documentary about Marilyn Monroe that aired in the United States.

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“There’s a question if you can make ends meet with a documentary on a commercial network. But my hunch is that there is a market in the U.S. and the right documentaries will go quite well there.” Just as they have on Britain’s commercial ITV and Channel Four.

The BBC’s “Say Goodbye to the President: The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe” was the kind of program that builds interest in other documentaries, said Carey. “It made a lot of money for a lot of people, and that encouraged a lot of people to call us up.”

There’s method to diversity. Carey said that the BBC’s smaller, seemingly trivial documentaries train staff for the bigger ones that are increasingly getting U.S. exposure.

One of those--a KCET co-production headed for PBS--is an eight-parter that Carey says will offer a fresh look at relations between the United States and Britain.

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The Brits do us more often and sometimes better than we do ourselves.

With American staff help, the BBC has begun work in New York on a program about Mafia in the United States. “It’s just a saucy story, isn’t it?” Carey said. And scheduled to air in January is “MIA,” offering revelations about American servicemen still missing in Southeast Asia.

The Mafia and MIA docs are being sold commercially in the United States by the BBC’s own distribution arm, Los Angeles-based Lionheart Television.

“It’s just a fascinating yarn,” Carey said about the nearly completed MIA program, a Ted Landreth co-production that promises to probe far deeper than a “20/20" segment on the same subject several months ago. “Perhaps it’s easier for us to do than you. Perhaps I’m just imagining it, but Vietnam still seems to be a sensitive subject in the U.S.”

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Profundity aside, however, sometimes the best yarn is about garbage, wonderfully smelly garbage. And on the BBC, at least, viewers get a whiff of that, too.


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