'Horror Movie' Approach Reaches Wide TV Audience

November 15, 2007

 

 

 By BILL DAWSON

In a time of ever-accelerating change in American journalism, it probably shouldn't have come as that much of a surprise that one of the big winners in SEJ's 6th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment was a documentary with the trappings of a cheesy horror movie.

The top winner in the "Outstanding Beat/In-Depth Reporting, Television" category was "The Green Monster," a 30-minute examination of a huge algae bloom in Florida's St. Johns River in 2005. Sharing the honor was a five-member team from PRC Digital Media, an independent company in Jacksonville that produced the program. Sponsored by a local advocacy group with funders including Jacksonville's daily newspaper, it was initially broadcast on the city's WTLV-TV.

The SEJ Awards judges had this to say about the documentary, which explained the importance of the bloom, the multiple culprits ("It's you and me – it's all of us in Northeast Florida"), and what corrective actions could be taken:

"The producers of this 30-minute program took an extremely unconventional approach, using a 1950's horror movie style to highlight a severe algae problem in Jacksonville's St. Johns River. Judges found the approach filled with potential to reach an audience that environmental journalism normally doesn't. Further, the judges found the focus not just on the problem but also on common-sense solutions commendable."

PRC also produced a follow-up documentary this year, "Revenge of the River," a harder-edged look at developers, environmental enforcement, and the political prospects for adequate funding of a cleanup plan for the St. Johns.

PRC's Bill Retherford, writer/producer for the two documentaries, responded to questions from the SEJournal:

Q: Tell me a little about your company, PRC Digital Media. What types of clients do you have? What kinds of work do you do? Has the company done other documentaries or handled many other journalistic assignments?

A: Actually, next year – 2008 – is PRC Digital Media's 20th anniversary. Ray Hays, our company president, started PRC after years in local public television and commercial TV. He was a producer on the local "PM Magazine" program, which had its heyday in the 80s.

Our client list is all over the place. Corporate clients like AT&T, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Maxwell House, Johnson & Johnson. Government clients like the U.S. Navy and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Broadcast and cable clients like NBC Sports, PGA Tour Productions and The Discovery Channel. PRC's presentation video to the NFL owners helped the city land the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Q: What's your professional background? Did you have journalistic or documentary experience in school or in previous jobs? Any prior professional involvement with environmental topics?

A: Even in elementary school, I was attracted to the stuff that journalists do – writing, reporting, asking questions, working on deadline. At family reunions I'd run around with a tape recorder and interview my cousins. I thought Darren McGavin – who played a newspaper reporter in "Kolchak, The Night Stalker" – was really cool. Just before local elections I'd "publish" a newspaper – eight pages of notebook paper folded in half, tabloid-style, with headlines in red Crayola and little articles I'd written about the candidates. I cut out real campaign ads from the local paper and stuck them to the pages with library paste. My circulation wasn't much. I didn't show it to anyone except my Mom.

I can't remember a time when I wasn't fascinated by television. When I was nine, I watched NBC's coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions. I took notes while David Brinkley pontificated, then ran back to my bedroom, shut the door and wrote a short script based on what Brinkley said. Then I'd report "live" from my "studio" about what was going on at the convention. The bedroom window was the camera lens. I'd try to read the script while maintaining as much eye contact as possible with the window. I timed my reports with a Mickey Mouse wristwatch. When I was finished, I actually said, "Back to you, David." My broadcast day ended at bedtime.

As a TV reporter, I looked for any excuse imaginable to do a story with even the slightest connection to science or nature – anything from local environmental issues to the new giraffe at the zoo. At my first job in Jacksonville, one of my minor duties was hosting a daily, five-minute local kids' program that ran just before the "Today" show. I produced about 250 of them. At least half were science-oriented. I'd talk to the kids about endangered species, energy conservation, pollution in our river and the possibility of life on Mars.

A few years later, in Miami, I regularly performed the time- honored reporter's shtick with icky creatures – you know, letting boa constrictors slither down my shirt or tarantulas crawl up my pants. Maybe it was silly, but I tried, even in those stories, to convey a positive message – or at least an appreciation – of the environment.

I had pretty much free rein on what I covered, and it seemed as though I was always at places like the Museum of Science or Metrozoo. At Miami Seaquarium I swam with the manatees – wonderful animals, by the way – and produced a prime-time special on a dolphin research facility down in the Keys.

Anytime the local school kids did something unique, particularly something science-oriented, we'd be there. Even stories that initially didn't seem like much. We covered a class project that was nothing more than some sixth graders growing lima beans out of Styrofoam cups. But after running it locally we sent the story to CNN and they ran it for three days. That piece, and hundreds of others, showed me the most mundane event could make for an interesting, intelligent, fun story – if only you cared enough to come up with a creative approach. In my opinion, a first-rate journalist should have the capability and curiosity to produce a compelling story about anything – even, say, a single blade of grass.

I remember the terrible day of the Challenger disaster. From Miami Beach, you could look up and see the white streaks from the explosion crisscrossing the sky. We stopped what we were doing and started interviewing drivers sitting at a stoplight on Collins Avenue. Some people were in tears. Later that day – and how ironic is this – I'm looking through my mail and there's a letter of congratulations from NASA. I'd just been named a finalist in the Journalist-in-Space Program. I'd applied for it months ago. It was for another shuttle mission slated down the line, but it never happened because of Challenger.

Q. The most novel thing about "The Green Monster," which is quite arresting, is the humorous 1950s horror-movie theme.  It includes kitschy graphics, music and appropriate metaphors to frame more conventional narration and quotes.  How did you decide on this theme?  Did you have any doubts as you progressed that such a lighthearted approach might backfire in dealing with such a serious subject?

A: That one occurred to me instantly. I mean, like five minutes into our first production meeting, I thought of the title: "The Green Monster – It Came From The River" – a take-off on those kitschy 1950s and 60s horror movies. With a toxic, fluorescent green algae literally devouring the St. Johns, it seemed a natural and very obvious choice.

The first minute of the show spoofed an old-time movie trailer: "A grotesque green goo, squirting a vile primordial juice all over our river. . . An alien creature invades a pristine environment, sliming anything in its path. . . Can the town save its crown jewel?" I had a great time writing it.

Our voice-over guy did a big, booming, melodramatic rendition over creepy music. We dirtied the video by superimposing "film scratches" over it. The fonts are classics, reminiscent of '50s movie trailers. The entire opening was in black-and-white – except the river itself. Our graphic artist, Chris Linke, turned that portion of the picture into a bright green. It offered a splendid contrast to the blackand- white. It was a great way to get into the documentary.

I never had the slightest hesitation about the title or creative concept. I thought it was memorable, highly promotable, and offered marketing possibilities beyond the show itself. Infinitely better than taking a standard, boilerplate approach. You know what I mean – you've seen it a thousand times – that listless, uninspired style of writing and production so common in news and documentaries. It's boring. Our client, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, was terrific. They bought into the idea right away. If they had any reservations, they didn't tell me. Ray Hays, our executive producer, was hesitant at first, but later felt we trod the line perfectly and used humor appropriately.

As for the audience – everyone got it. Just like that. It really caught on. Spot an algae bloom in the river now, and the media refers to "the return of the Green Monster." Our mayor has used the term in speeches. "Green Monster" is now sort of a brand – a catch-phrase that has passed into the local vernacular.

"The Green Monster" name and concept gave us an added bonus. It appealed to kids. Science teachers began showing "Green Monster" DVDs to their students and they really responded. The Jacksonville Museum of Science and History picked up on it, and we're now working with them on a kiosk and interactive game for kids. We call it "Zap The Green Monster." If we had done something dull and pedantic, that project never would have happened. There is no way to overestimate the value of an educational tool that kids actually like. It pleases me immensely, knowing that "Green Monster" works for sophisticated, erudite PhDs – and ten-year-olds.

Q: How important was the choice of Jeff Lageman – a former player for the Jaguars and, more recently, a sports and fishing broadcaster – to the success of the documen- tary? Did he take a lot of persuading before he agreed to participate?

A: I don't want anyone to take this the wrong way. But we felt the host should not be someone perceived as a "tree-hugger." I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. But North Florida's a fairly conservative place – and here we are, asking people to get stoked over an environmental issue. Granted, the environment's gone mainstream. But so many people still consider it an ideological issue. I know that's ridiculous, but that's the way it is. Jeff – who is well-known here, not just from his time with the Jags but for a local fishing show he co-hosts – has a "good-ole-boy" persona. He could get buy-in from the skeptics. He was the perfect counter-intuitive choice.

He needed no persuasion to host the show. Seems he took his son fishing during the bloom. They were out there in that goop – we found out later it was toxic, up to 150 times what the World Health Organization says is safe – when his son suddenly got quite ill. That's not uncommon. The blooms cause respiratory problems along with eye, nose and throat irritations. He was okay once he got off the river, but Jeff saw firsthand just how bad the blooms could be. So he was more than enthusiastic to do the show. He donated his time, which was a very generous thing for him to do.

Q: Was "The Green Monster" conceived and produced without a prior arrangement for it to be broadcast? The documentary was sponsored by an advocacy group, St. Johns Riverkeeper, and PRC is an independent production company. Did this parentage and the fact that the WTLV news department was not involved in the program make it tough to get it aired on the station? The prime-time broadcast is a rare feat for any local documentary.

A: Actually, that part, to my astonishment, was amazingly easy. Before we shot even a frame of footage, we approached Ken Tonning, president and general manager of WTLV, Jacksonville's NBC affiliate and No. 1 station. By coincidence, he lived on the river. Ray Hays, our executive producer, was barely a sentence into his pitch when Ken said, "Thank God. We've gotta do something." We struck a deal immediately.

Basically, WTLV exercised no editorial control over the program. St. Johns Riverkeeper, our sponsors, bought a half-hour slot at a reduced rate. WTLV gave us prime-time – eight o'clock on Thursday night – pre-empting an original episode of Will & Grace. That's rare – a local station canceling a network show to run a documentary. Because Riverkeeper bought the time, "The Green Monster" ran without commercial interruption.

Riverkeeper wanted "Green Monster" on by mid-March, because one of its segments showed viewers how to create a "river-friendly" yard – and most people here fertilize before April. So our March 16 airdate was perfect, except for one thing – our competition that night, which included two of the most-hyped shows of the year: "American Idol" and the NCAA playoffs.

We didn't expect much in the ratings. Everyone said we wouldn't even approach a 3 rating. But "Green Monster" nearly doubled that with a 5.4 rating (representing the number of homes in the designated area with televisions – turned on or off – tuned into a particular program) and 8 share (meaning 8 percent of viewers watching TV at that time). It didn't get past the NCAA or "Idol," but it was a strong third and beat everything else that night. WTLV called it "very, very respectable," and I think they were a little surprised. We were, to say the least, extremely pleased.

Q: The sponsorship and funding of "The Green Monster" represented an unconventional arrangement, at least for mainstream journalism. Besides St. Johns Riverkeeper's advocacy status, funders included individuals, companies, a foundation, a garden club and The Florida Times-Union newspaper. How independent were you as writer/producer in your editorial decisions?

A: I can tell you straight up that I had as much independence on this project as anything I've ever done. I wrote and produced "Green Monster" exactly the way I'd write and produce any balanced, independent news piece. St. Johns Riverkeeper realized right away that "Green Monster" was a work of journalism, not an infomercial. They allowed us near-complete editorial and creative autonomy. Two people from their organization – Jimmy Orth, the executive director, and Neil Armingeon, who is the actual riverkeeper – reviewed the script on a Sunday, the day before we taped Jeff Lageman's on-camera narration. There were virtually no changes – just a couple of very minor word tweaks, that's it. I will forever be appreciative of their great faith in us. Every producer should be so lucky.

I can't speak highly enough of the Riverkeeper organization. They didn't veto interview subjects. There were no restrictions. They gave us full support, even if it meant putting someone on-camera who might disagree with them. Riverkeeper's a non-profit, independent watchdog group – so as you might imagine, they've had their share of disagreements with numerous government agencies over the years. But they encouraged us to balance the program and include those agencies in the program. I will always admire them for their fair play and evenhandedness.

Q: What kind of reaction among the public and regional leaders did "The Green Monster" elicit when it was first broadcast? Was the reaction surprising to you in any way?

A: About the time "Green Monster" aired, the city of Jacksonville was in the midst of crafting a plan to clean up the river, hardly an easy or enviable task. Our documentary clearly had a positive impact on what they ultimately created. Four months after "Green Monster's" initial run, the city announced the "River Accord," the scope of which astounded me – a 10-year, $700 million plan to address the long-standing problems of the St. Johns. What's more, some of the recommendations suggested in "Green Monster" appeared in the accord.

Here are a couple of quotes regarding Green Monster's influence on city leaders as they prepared the Accord:

Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton said, "The program played a large part in my decision to act on the public's concern for our river." He called it "a catalyst for increased action and advocacy." Quinton White, a biology and marine science professor and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Jacksonville University – and one of our "Green Monster" interview subjects, said the program "had tremendous impact on public opinion. The groundswell of support gave energy to the city government's initiative."

I can't begin to tell you how thrilled we were to hear all of this. To think that "The Green Monster" had even a small impact in the creation and execution of an unprecedented $700 million plan to clean up our river – really, that blew me away.

Q: Has your follow-up documentary – "Revenge of the River" – been broadcast (apart from its recent placement as streaming video on The Florida Times-Union website)?

A: "Revenge of the River" was broadcast in May 2007 – again in prime-time, again partnered with our friends at St. Johns Riverkeeper and WTLV – and again, we got great numbers. We finished No. 1 in the time slot against all other half-hour programs, which amazed us. "Revenge" played a second time in August on WJCT, our PBS/Public Television affiliate, and is now on its third go-round with repeated airings on Comcast Cable's local access channel.

Q: Besides helping fund "The Green Monster," the Times-Union has a well-known political columnist, Ron Littlepage, who comments memorably in both documentaries. How did the recent decision by the newspaper to feature both "The Green Monster" and "Revenge of the River" on its home page come about?

A: The Florida Times-Union has been a great supporter of ours since the start. Just before the broadcast, they ran a free – repeat, free – quarter-page advertisement in the TV section promoting "The Green Monster." Normally, an ad like that costs thousands of dollars. It was an enormously generous gesture, and it's one of the reasons why "Green Monster" got excellent ratings. Along with the ad, Ron Littlepage, the T-U's political columnist, wrote glowing reviews of both documentaries that appeared on the days of their airings. I'll always be grateful for that. So the T-U's willingness to help out once again – to feature both of our documentaries on their website – was no surprise to me.

Q: Do you have plans for any more follow-ups on St. Johns River issues, or to examine other environmental subjects in future documentaries?

A: Sure. Even after two documentaries, I feel like we've barely begun. The next thing, I hope, is a television spinoff of the children's interactive game and kiosk I'm now producing for our Museum of Science and History ("Zap The Green Monster"). I'd like to do a companion children's program that would run on local television during an after-school time slot or Saturday morning. It would focus on conservation – the things kids can do now to make a difference and help save the river.

We're also developing some proposals for eco-documentaries and television series to take to the broadcast and cable networks. That, to me, is the most exciting possibility of all.

SEJournal readers wishing to communicate with Retherford are invited to contact him at bretherford@prcdigital.com 

Bill Dawson is a Houston-based freelancer and also teaches at Rice University. He formerly wrote about environmental issues for the Houston Chronicle and other news organizations.

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2007 issue.

 

BILL DAWSON