BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last year R.J. Cutler had a new plan for the cameras he'd used to capture Bill Clinton in The Spin Room and Oliver North in A Perfect Candidate. He'd go to high school and document a group of teenagers being teenagers, and he would air the results where teenagers were likely to see them -- on the Fox Network. Well, Cutler did go to a suburban Chicago school, and he did capture the highs--
MAN: I am pleased to offer you admission to the College of Arts and Science the University of Cal--Californ-- Yeeeeeesssss!!!!!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- and the lows--
WOMEN: Teenage dating process. I hate it. I want to [...?...].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- of teenage life. And Fox did air them for four episodes, and then after being beaten in the ratings by Big Brother, the so-called reality show on CBS, Fox pulled the plug.
BOB GARFIELD:American High became Cutler's education in commercial broadcasting. This coming of age story has a happy ending though. PBS agreed to air the series in its entirety beginning this week, and we'll finally get to learn if Morgan ever makes up with his parents. [SEVERAL SPEAK AT ONCE]
MORGAN'S FATHER: If you were a decent student I wouldn't care if you lived in a pig sty; but you're a lousy student, and you live in a pig sty, and you have rotten manners, and you have no respect. You are an absolutely obnoxious kid and everything that's good about you at least surfaces with people outside this house and the people that you want to impress.
MORGAN: Anything you got to say mom? Come on! You're the one who's full of words.
MORGAN'S FATHER: Get out!
MORGAN'S MOTHER: Shut that thing off? [DOOR OPEN/CLOSE]
MORGAN: Like I said, my mom and dad are real pricks.
BOB GARFIELD: R.J. Cutler, why did you think this show could be successful on the Fox Network?
R.J. CUTLER: I mean we designed American High from the beginning as a - as a - the non-fiction version of My So-Called Life, and the idea was - behind it really was-- that non-fiction, cinema verite storytelling could function in prime time.
BOB GARFIELD: Now Fox had other problems at the time; they had a dramatic loss in viewership. Do you think they panicked?
R.J. CUTLER:I know that last summer was a tough summer for Fox. You know in the words of one network executive who was speaking to me about it, we've got a network that's hemorrhaging and I've got to do something to stop the bleeding! And I, I respect that! I think they made a mistake, and this is a show that has a devoted audience - an audience that remains to this day checking in every day on the web site, e-mailing each other; kids are -- to this day - still into the show and you'll see I believe when the show comes on PBS starting April 4th that this community of viewers returns and the audience will build. PBS is extremely committed to the show. They're going to air it every Wednesday night at - from 10 to 11, for a full 13 week run, and then they're going to re-air it for-another 13 weeks consecutively after that.
BOB GARFIELD:So, superficially at least this is the most counter-intuitive move since, you know, Jed Clampett and his family headed for Beverly Hills. The idea of going from that venue to PBS is, you know, on the face of it, remarkable; but I guess it, it actually makes quite a bit of sense that you examine the subject matter of the documentary.
R.J. CUTLER: The subject matter; the form; the content; the history of a show like-- An American Family which premiered on PBS 30 years ago and was the first re--reality series of them all! So it's not so unusual for PBS to be hosting this show.
BOB GARFIELD:Now that you're serious, we'll have a presumably wide audience on PBS, and certainly it will be given a run. It won't be canceled after four episodes the way it was on Fox. Do you harbor any fantasy that the way you approach reality television as a documentarian will influence the way others have approached reality television - get rid of the -- it might somehow push aside these preposterously contrived formats.
R.J. CUTLER: There are a l-- a number of different genres of non-fiction television show. There's the non-fiction game show; Survivor is the I think best-produced example of that. There is the contrived reality drama - a show like The Real World functions that way; Making the Band is another program that does that. And then there are the true non-fiction drama series programs. Right now ours is the only one that will be on the air. Come next year there are a couple that are being developed that are real non-fiction drama series shows, shows made by real documentary filmmakers who go into other people's environments, go into their worlds, and then we always say these kids in American High, they were going to high school, they were living their lives, they were having their relationships, they were dealing with the issues surrounding coming of age in America right now whether we were there to film it or not. You cannot say that about any of these other programs. You know, it's a very simple formula. If our shows are successful, other shows like ours will follow!
BOB GARFIELD: Are you cutting the show? Are you yourself changing the content for this very clearly different audience [...?...]? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
R.J. CUTLER:We're not changing a frame of the show American High; now American High is a - was a half hour show on Fox which meant it was 22 minutes of programming; without commercials it means we have approximately 4 or 5 more minutes of air time in every half hour. So we have produced supplemental segments.
BOB GARFIELD: The four episodes that ran on Fox I presume you will run them in similar form just to acquaint the viewers with the characters-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
R.J. CUTLER:[...?...] -- they will run in similar form and the subsequent 9 episodes will run as they were originally produced for Fox. In addition, after every episode there's a 5 minute segment of kind of look behind the scenes - how do we pick the kid - what was the diary class process like? The final episode will be succeeded by a where am I now segment that the kids themselves have contributed new diaries to. So it's that kind of thing. But the show is no different than what we cut for Fox.
BOB GARFIELD: Mr. Cutler, thank you very much.
R.J. CUTLER: My pleasure. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: R.J. Cutler is the executive producer of American High which airs on PBS on Wednesdays at 10 p.m.