By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C., is a rarity: a local TV station with an independent documentary unit, thanks to Capitol Broadcasting owner and President/CEO Jim Goodmon, who felt news stories relevant to the state ought to be covered in more depth.
A team that includes Mr. Goodmon, News Director Rick Gall, Programming Director John Harris, VP-GM Jim Hefner, and documentary producer Clay Johnson creates a “master list” of topics every few months for the series “Focal Point.” Two resulting programs-“Standards of Living” and “Paper Thin Promise”-have garnered the DuPont award.
“Paper Thin Promises” focuses on the 10-year-old murder of Anitra Coburn by her boyfriend Doug Carter, despite the fact that she took out a restraining order against him. This documentary came about when Mr. Gall realized that nearly every woman killed by a boyfriend or husband in North Carolina had a restraining order in place. “We wanted to look at the issue of restraining orders, but we looked at it through the problem of domestic violence in the state,” Mr. Johnson said. “This was the model case that showed all the problems related to this issue.”
This documentary features a dramatic ending: an interview with Mr. Carter. “We were fairly surprised that he was willing to speak with us,” Mr. Johnson said. “People were very shocked … but we were trying to shock them.” Since the airing of the program, law enforcement agencies and domestic violence groups have requested copies to use for training and heightening public awareness. “The heart of the problem is to try to get law enforcement to treat domestic violence like a crime, not a family issue,” he said. “Now, a number of law enforcement agencies and courthouses in the state have changed that mind-set.”
“Standards of Living” is another shocker. “Advocacy groups were lobbying the legislature for new standards for migrant farmer housing, which now are lower than they are for prison inmates,” said Mr. Johnson. “What solidified our desire [to do this documentary] was when we actually looked at the standards and saw how low they were.” The team also reviewed Edward R. Murrow’s groundbreaking 1960 “CBS Reports: Harvest of Shame,” parts of which were filmed in North Carolina. The team was struck by how little things had changed.
“That was a real revelation and made us say, yes, we need to do this documentary,” Mr. Johnson said. “Another reason is that agriculture is so important in this state.” One of many revealing moments in the documentary is when the state’s labor commissioner describes her lack of support for new standards of living for migrant workers. “It’s the response I expected,” Mr. Johnson said. “Conditions have been that way for 40 years and that’s the person in charge.”
Filmmakers managed to get workers on camera without trespassing on private property by having worker advocates ask workers to come to the property line and invite them in. Even so, getting workers to speak openly on camera was not easy. “We didn’t get many of them to talk, and when they did, they were reserved in their comments,” he said. “But the situation was obvious. They didn’t have to say much.”
Winning the DuPont is validation for the station already committed to hard-hitting documentaries. “I think it’s great that a local station has this kind of commitment to documentaries,” Mr. Johnson said. “I don’t think our management saw documentaries as a money-making venture, but are pleasantly surprised at the ratings.” And, no doubt, at the DuPont silver baton.