Case Study

In the newspaper office of the New York Times, reporters and photographers don't worry about releases. But at the company's video branch, NYT Television, the producers do. Five years ago, NYT Television began producing the reality series Trauma: Life In The...
October 1, 2000

In the newspaper office of the New York Times, reporters and photographers don’t worry about releases. But at the company’s video branch, NYT Television, the producers do. Five years ago, NYT Television began producing the reality series Trauma: Life In The ER for TLC. It became the channel’s top-rated show, inspiring spin-offs like Paramedics (TLC) and knock-offs like Hopkins 24/7 (ABC).

Trauma is shot by three videographers, staking out a hospital emergency room around the clock. The shooters each operate as a one-person crew, responsible for getting video, audio and releases – sometimes with a producer’s help. Encountering people in the middle of crises and tragedies, it takes gumption and gentle persuasion to get a release signed. But the success rate is high. It helps that many people have already heard of the show. One producer estimates that over 90% of the people asked have signed.

How do they do it? Trauma producer Stacia Thompson explains. ‘I do think [releases are] a good idea. You’re filming people when they’re feeling vulnerable. They’re going to be exposed. It’s ethically right that they understand what you’re doing.

‘Many times the people you think will be most resistant, wind up being the most positive. There was an older man who was drunk and shot himself in the mouth. He was at his son’s house for Easter. He came into the emergency room alert and conscious. It was a small caliber bullet lodged behind his eyeball. The doctors plucked the bullet out. The guy wound up being fine. While the scene was being filmed, I talked to his son in the waiting room. The son felt it was fine to [film] the father, but the son didn’t want to be part of it. Subsequently the son and father made up and the son decided he did want to be in the show with his father. They wanted to show there is hope for families in distress.

‘There are obviously concerns about whether it’s fair to be filming people in a coma. But a lot of times when [the patients] are conscious again, they feel they’ve recaptured that period [because it's on tape]. In a way they’re being given back this time they lost.

‘Some situations are intense. When someone has died we like to go with the doctor to tell the family. In that situation you want to talk to the family first and prepare them. That to me is the trickiest situation. The family doesn’t know what you know. One time there were parents of a kid killed in a motorcycle accident. Before the doctor told them, I asked ‘Is it okay if we’re filming when she comes to talk to you?’ They agreed to it. But they didn’t realize how serious it was. At that point I don’t ask for the release. It’s about getting consent – to make sure they’re comfortable with the fact that we’re filming.

‘As soon as the doctor gave them the news, they got very upset and asked the cameraman to leave – which he immediately did. They weren’t upset at us. But the one thing they had control over was to say ‘stop filming.’ That was uncomfortable for all of us. I did go back to them later to find out if we could use the case. They didn’t say no. But the wife would say, ‘You’ll have to check with my husband.’ Then the husband would say, ‘I don’t think my wife wants it.’ If I had really wanted it, I might have pressed a little harder, but I let it go. In that situation, the last thing people care about is your TV show.

‘On the other hand, sometimes people feel it’s the one good thing that will come out of their situation. I have a case in my current show with a happy ending. A kid was in a car accident. They give him no chance. The doctor tells the family that he thinks their son is going to die. I talked to that family from the beginning. Their attitude was maybe this will help other people. The kid came out of the coma. We have footage at the end of the show of him playing basketball. It’s a great story.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.