How ‘Boston Med’ Became ABC's Real-Life Surprise Docu-Hit

Eight episode docu-series is averaging a 95 percent retention rate between the first and second half-hours, one of the highest on television

Terry Wrong, who conceived, wrote and executive produced the critically acclaimed ABC summer docu-series "Boston Med," has covered bombings of U.S. embassies in Lebanon, a TWA hijacking, the Iran-Iraq war, famines in Ethiopia and Somalia, the war in Bosnia and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Nothing, however, gets his blood pumping more than talking about the 2,500 hours of footage that he and his crew captured at three Boston hospitals to put together eight hour-long episodes for the series currently airing on Thursday nights at 10.

The real-life "ER" is averaging 5.2 million viewers in a tough time period against CBS' hit drama "The Mentalist."

But the show's viewers are among the most loyal and mesmerized, with the series retaining 95 percent of its viewers from its first half hour into its second half hour, among the highest percentages in television.

It's the sixth limited-run series Wrong and his ABC News unit has made — including the Peabody-winning "Hopkins" — and will conclude on Aug. 12 with an episode that will show what is only the second face transplant ever.

What size crew did it take to shoot 2,500 hours of footage over a four month period in three different Boston hospitals?
We had seven videographers, seven producers and the rest assorted staffers. Some of the videographers had backgrounds filming medical shows, but not all of them.

Some were from shows focusing on real life, like homicides. Some of the producers had worked on other medical documentaries and some came from medical families. The father of one of our producers is the chief of neurology at another Boston hospital, not one we filmed at.

This was not a routine assignment. The people had to be smart and sensitive people that you can trust to handle themselves properly in delicate situations.

Was there any special training you had to undergo?
We got hygiene training, operating room training. We were given official hospital IDs. We were essentially deputized. Unlike usual documentary crews, we were not escorted around to get access. We were free to move around the hospital as we pleased to meet doctors, talk to them about their surgeries and cases and to decide who and what to film. We also all had to undergo Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act training, so that we would be sure to know the laws regarding patient privacy.

How did you decide which doctors to film and what cases to follow?
There are about 10,000 caregivers in the three hospitals, and we narrowed that down to about 2,000 or 3,000 and from that selected a few hundred to interview and then picked about a dozen or so people to focus on.

Would just walk up to doctors and start talking with them to see what their personalities were like. Who has good communication skills. Who has charisma. What their jobs entailed. It was for a TV show, so they couldn't be boring. If someone spent each day in a lab doing research, that would be too boring. But if we found a doctor who was paged to the ER to treat a pregnant woman who was shot in the heart and tried to save her life, he would be a good candidate.

Sometimes we followed a doctor for two months and nothing worth airing happened. It was a bit of a white knuckle ride at times. You are always worried that even with all the hours of filming we were doing, we wouldn't get enough good stories to make the eight hour series.

You filmed at three hospitals.
We filmed at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Children's Hospital. Brigham and Children's Hospitals are connected, but Mass General was on the other side of town, so sometimes it was a logistical nightmare to get from one to the other when something major was happening.

We set up a bureau in the hospitals, rooms where we could operate out of during the day and move quickly throughout the hospital if something was happening to film. And we rented apartments across the street from the hospital so we could respond on a 24-7 basis if we felt something should be filmed.

How long did the project take?
Three months to negotiate, four months to shoot the footage, and 10 to 11 months to edit the 2,500 hours down to eight one-hour episodes.

Does a caregiver or patient have the option or right to ask that something filmed not be used?
We had to get patient consent before filming;  if we couldn't, then we can get it from a relative or afterward — or we could just use the footage and not show the patient's identity. No one has the right to ask that something that was already filmed not be used, though they can ask us to stop filming.

As far as opting out, they can say they no longer want to be in the show. But that rarely happened. Most of the people we selected to be filmed were pretty strong personalities. Most of them are not going to get cold feet and want to be taken out of the series. When we select the doctors and nurses, we tried to pick self-confident people, not nervous nellies.

Why would patients give consent to be filmed?
Our consent rate was about 95 percent. I think most people believe that by giving consent to have their case filmed it's going to help other people who see it. It also adds a value aspect to their situation that someone is there documenting it.

What is the cost of a series like this compared to a primetime entertainment series?
This is an inexpensive an hour as you are likely to find on any broadcast network. It's cheaper to produce than a scripted drama by multiples. And it's cheaper to produce than a big-time reality show by multiples.
We've been very cost-efficient for the network and still able to provide a different, dynamic type of programming.

Your final episode documents only the second facial transplant ever. Was that something you  planned on filming when you started the project?
It just fell into our laps. We started out following a man, Joseph Helfgot, who needed a heart transplant and was looking for a donor. He did not survive the surgery, and an organ bank asked his family if they would donate his face to a man was face was badly damaged. The family agreed. We had a trove of footage on this man who died and when the family agreed we were able to continue the story.

Being only the second facial transplant, it was a huge surgery for Brigham. In the episode, we will show portions of the surgery. The surgery was done in April or May of 2009 and the man, James Maki, is recovering.

Do you stay in touch with the patients you filmed for the series?
Yes. And we're still in touch with patients from the earlier series "Hopkins" from a few years ago. You spend a lot of time with these people and form bonds with them. There's nothing in the contract that requires us to stay in touch, but we want to know how they are doing.