In Depth

ABC News: 'Hopkins'

Not many broadcast networks devote six hours of primetime programming to a documentary series, but for ABC News, the effort has paid off in a Peabody Award for “Hopkins,” a cinéma vérité look inside Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital that aired last summer.

“Hopkins” was actually a sequel of sorts: Ten years ago, the network did a similar project entitled “Hopkins 24/7.”

After the decision was made to go back inside the medical center to re-examine the human side of modern medicine, a crew of 20, led by executive producer Terence Wrong, was given unprecedented, unescorted access to every nook and cranny of the medical facility, one of the nation’s top-ranked teaching hospitals, from the emergency room to the locker room.

They shot for four months and came out with 1,500 hours of footage that took a year to edit.

“We all take patient-privacy training, learn about infectious diseases, go through security checks, get inoculated, wear scrubs and go in and out of neurosurgery, cardiac, psychiatry and, of course, emergency,” Mr. Wrong said. “We’re looking at it from the point of view of the doctors and the patients. It’s pure fly-on-the-wall.”

In the 10 years since the original documentary series aired, the popularity of reality television has exploded. Meanwhile, fictional doctor shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House” proved the ongoing appeal of the genre.

“Reality television came along and confused viewers about what ‘documentary’ means,” said Mr. Wrong. “What we do is pure documentary. You could see what we’re doing is about life and death, with trained people who are at the pinnacle of their profession.”

The series employed techniques that evolved in dramatic television, such as using an ensemble cast and interwoven storylines. Producers also were mindful of the fact that the show had to be commercially appealing.

“There has to be a major story arc to pull you through all six acts and to keep the audience coming back,” said Mr. Wrong, who is currently shooting a new medical documentary series for ABC News at three other hospitals.

“All hospitals are war zones to a degree,” he said. “Thank God for all of the people willing to go into these medical professions that require such great sacrifice. It really changes your notion of medicine.”