It is no stretch to say that so-called reality TV has reached phenomenon status. In the past few months, hours of people's lives have been spent watching others struggling to stay on an island, co-habitating in sterile living quarters and wanting to be a millionaire.
Now, with ABC's groundbreaking six-part documentary series Hopkins 24/7, the action gets even more real--and for those on the East Baltimore campus, real familiar, too. The wait is over, the VCRs are set on "record," and now it's time to see Baltimore's own elite academic medical institution come to life on the small screen.
The series will premiere on Wednesday, Aug. 30, at 10 p.m., with a second hour broadcast at the same time on Aug. 31. Subsequent episodes will air on four Wednesday nights in September.
Perhaps nobody is more eager for the show's debut than Joann Rodgers, deputy director of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs for Johns Hopkins Medicine. Rodgers literally has been involved with the project from day one. She distinctly recalls the June 1999 mid-morning call she received from Severn Sandt, the show's coordinating producer, that started it all. Hopkins, Rodgers subsequently found out, was on the short list of academic medical institutions ABC News was hoping to film, and the call was a preliminary one to see which of them would be interested.
Months later she learned of Sandt's absolute surprise as to how receptive Hopkins was to the idea of a large-scale documentary being filmed at the hospital.
"She started with Hopkins because she was certain we would say absolutely no way. That was probably because there were considerable risks and challenges to participating," Rodgers says.
Many meetings and telephone conferences later, Hopkins agreed to grant ABC nearly unfettered access to the institution, an unprecedented broadcast television endeavor. From September to December of last year, ABC field producers using hand-held cameras captured the everyday, and often dramatic, events of patients and staff.
Rodgers says, just days prior to the premiere, that there are no regrets on Hopkins' part in participating in this television venture.
"What we felt then, and still feel, is that this program has the potential to offer a place like Hopkins--and all academic medicine--a really colossal platform for talking about and showing the issues we think are critical for the public to understand," Rodgers says. "Academic medical centers spend a lot of time insisting, and I think rightfully so, that people don't understand them. People in large part don't understand why we cost so much, why we use so much tax money, why it takes so long to be seen, why their bills are so complicated. With this platform we can show the complex nature of academic medicine and at the same time really build fans of what it is we do."
One of the challenges Hopkins knew it would face from this kind of attention would be a flood of calls and e-mails from potential patients, physicians and online visitors. To manage that, it has arranged for ABC to put Hopkins' 800 number on its Web site ( www.abcnews.com), added a dedicated service to answer calls and revamped the JHM Web site for ease of navigation and to provide viewers with more information about topics and issues addressed in each segment.
For Hopkins personnel who were filmed, even those who were used to cameras, this experience was unique.
Rick Montz, a professor of gynecology and obstetrics, had a camera crew shadowing him for nearly four months. They filmed him talking candidly with patients by their bedsides, in the operating room and even in his home. (You'll see him in episode 5, Sept. 20.) Montz says that after the first few weeks, the camera's presence almost became fun, in part due to the producers' "genuine interest in what we did and why we did it."
Yet Montz says he doesn't plan on watching any of the six episodes.
"I will probably be working or sleeping," Montz says. "We have a big-screen TV, but it has no cable link or even rabbit ears--it is just for watching movies--so I wouldn't be able to watch it at home anyway."
Rabbit ears aside, Montz says the real reason why he'll abstain from viewing is that he has no interest in reliving what he does every day.
"I was recruited from Southern California, and I came here for one reason, to practice Hopkins medicine," Montz says. "It is the same reason why in The Right Stuff all those guys get on the plane and try to break the sound barrier. If someone knows and cares about what we do, great; if they don't, that is fine too. This is what we do, and I don't need to watch it on television."
Montz, however, appears to be an exception on the East Baltimore campus. Everyone else interviewed for this article says they will either watch live or record at least one of the one-hour episodes.
Edward Cornwell, associate professor of general surgery, says he plans on viewing the show with his wife and their 3-year-old.
Cornwell, who specializes in adult trauma surgery, also was filmed extensively for the documentary and realizes that Hopkins 24/7 has the immense potential to inform, not just entertain. Segment No. 1, Aug. 30, will show one of Cornwell's patients, a gunshot victim of Baltimore's sometimes violent streets, lying in his hospital bed and telling a group of local teenagers, brought in by Cornwell, to steer clear of drugs and guns.
Cornwell has practiced this method of outreach for years, but here was an opportunity to speak to a much wider audience.
"I talk a lot about prevention, but this show is expanding the institution's typical sphere of influence," Cornwell says. "There clearly are benefits in that."
Many people said they will tune in to see what--of the thousands of hours filmed--made the final cut.
In addition to bringing viewers inside patient and operating rooms, Hopkins 24/7 also will show the cutting-edge research work and the behind-the-scenes lives of physicians and staff. In the first episode, viewers also will get a rare look inside a Mortality and Morbidity conference in which physicians analyze the life-and-death decisions they have recently made.
Peggy Soderstrom, assistant professor of Professional Education Programs & Practice at the School of Nursing, says she is quite looking forward to the broadcast.
"I'm very curious about the M&M meeting. I thought that was quite brave of Hopkins to show," she says.
Soderstrom says she thinks viewers will take from the show a greater appreciation of how doctors are trained and the rigors of their daily lives.
"They will see how the patient outcome is the physician's reward," Soderstrom says. "Hopkins is a wonderful institution, and my hope is that some of the negativity for hospitals and physicians in general will be diminished by this broadcast."
Fellow School of Nursing faculty member Debra Kosko says that one reason she'll watch is "simply pride in working at Johns Hopkins--and wanting to see how the place looks on the screen."
Fourth-year medical student Rebecca Ashkenazy says that she will follow as much of the series as possible. She expects that many of her fellow students will get together to view the show in their apartments or dorm rooms.
"I am very excited about the fact they are using Johns Hopkins as a background to talk about the medical profession," Ashkenazy says. "In particular, I am interested in how ABC will portray the academic medical center--whether they will sensationalize it or temper their coverage."
Ashkenazy says that another reason to watch the show is because people, when they learn of her Hopkins affiliation, will undoubtedly ask her, "Is that what it's really like there?"