Arts & Entertainment's seven-year-old Biography series has developed into the most popular show on the cable channel that offers an eclectic mix of documentaries, British mysteries and drama, arts programming and vintage movies.
"Biography" has become so successful over the last 18 months that last week the series went from airing once a week to five times a week. Michael Cascio, vice president of documentary programming, explains why he believes the series, hosted by Peter Graves and Jack Perkins, has become an audience favorite: "Where a big network might give you 10 minutes on a person, we will give you a whole hour," he says. "You get detail. That's one thing we can do that the other people can't. I think the reason why 'Biography' succeeds is that it lives on the name of the persons being profiled. If you do an Alfred Hitchcock or Margaret Thatcher or Hillary Clinton or John Belushi, these are people whom everybody knows who they are. They have an interesting life and can sustain detail that can last for an hour. Generally, you look for people who are popular and have a little bit of weight behind them."
The type and era of personalities the series chooses have evolved since the series premiered on April 6, 1987. Originally, most of the biographies were culled from the '60s Mike Wallace-hosted CBS series, also entitled "Biography."
These days, "Biography" profiles more than recent historical figures. "We have covered a lot of historical figures from the '30s and '40s--Churchill and Roosevelt. We will still do some of those. But we have gone way forward. We have just done Sid Caesar and Milton Berle. We have done Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor."
Because production techniques have become so sophisticated, "Biography" also can examine the lives of such not-so-recent historical figures as Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington and Davy Crockett. "You can go back in time and use drawings and paintings," Cascio says. "We can have some fun. There are a lot of people that you can choose that are going to have audience appeal. The range is phenomenal. We have so much fun figuring out who we want to do."
"Biography" aspires to give viewers a fresh look at a particular person. "You have an obligation to the public," Cascio says. "We are not sensationalized. We are not tabloid. Our goal is fairness--not to highlight the bad stuff or just dwell on the good parts. It's to present a balanced portrait of a person or a particular portrait. Generally speaking, the biography is meant to deal with people in all of their aspects and look at them as a whole, which is more difficult to do than you might think."
Members of the Hollywood community have become more receptive about participating in the series. "You can do anything, " Cascio says. "We can do a biography, but it's difficult to do--not impossible--without (the subject's) direct approval. Even if they don't talk, they can say to their friends, 'Don't talk to them.' When we told Sid Caesar we were doing this, he had a choice of cooperating or not, and he cooperated. He knows his life has had ups and downs. He said, 'It's better for me to cooperate and give you my side of the story rather than have a bunch of people telling stuff they don't know about.' "
Famous folks, Cascio says, also perceive the documentaries as a way to leave a legacy. 'I'm sure that for Milton Berle, aside from the fact he's a natural ham, this was a chance to get on record his life in an hour."
And what have been the highest-rated "Biography" subjects?
Elizabeth Taylor, Milton Berle, Bruce Lee, Shirley Temple and Howard Hughes.
"Right below that there is a surprising middle pack including Napoleon and Vincent Price," Cascio says.
A&E; plans to produce between 70 and 100 original biographies this year, including John Belushi, Sherlock Holmes ("We can do fictional people as well," Cascio says), Steve Allen, Davy Crockett, George Washington and Lucille Ball.
This week "Biography" profiles: Gen. Omar Bradley (Monday); Hillary Rodham Clinton (Tuesday); Stevie Wonder (Wednesday); Humphrey Bogart (Thursday); and Marilyn Monroe (Friday).
Of course, Cascio says, he has a wish list, which includes Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand and Doris Day. "For me as producer and the head of documentaries here, it's sort of like being a kid in the candy store."
"Biography" airs weeknights at 5 and 9 p.m. on A&E.; Several "Biography" documentaries are also available on A&E; Home Video.