Two of the nurses who treated ABC News producer Terence Wrong when he was hospitalized for a minor ailment recently told him they traced their interest in medicine directly to his work.
That’s a profound point of pride, as well as extra assurance of attentive care. Wrong has established a niche as the maker of rigorous nonfiction television series that go behind the scenes at institutions, more often than not hospitals, ever since his first series on Johns Hopkins Hospital aired in 2000.
The latest, “NY Med,” debuts at 10 p.m. Thursday. It contrasts stories from Manhattan’s New York-Presbyterian Hospital with gritty emergency room scenes from Newark, New Jersey’s University Hospital.
Five of the eight series Wrong has made for ABC were set in hospitals; his team has immersed itself in the work at more than a dozen facilities. Each series takes at least four months of filming and up to a year of postproduction, so they rarely appear in back-to-back years. They’re watched closely by many in medicine — not just Wrong’s nurses.
“We always knew that one of the reasons the hospitals are willing to exhibit their warts and blemishes as well as the great things they do is that they see this series as a recruitment tool,” Wrong said.
“NY Med” has the mix of stories that will be familiar to fans, including remarkable footage of a man suffering a life-threatening aneurysm in front of Dr. Mehmet Oz. We see patients and their families live through delicate surgeries and gunshot victims in emergency rooms. A nurse is fired for breaking her workplace’s social media rules and, in a lighthearted moment, a patient is called out for flirting with several nurses simultaneously.
As a character, Dr. Ashley Winter offers relief from the more intense stories of the first episode. A young, attractive urologist, she has to ask delicate questions of older men, as well as fend off guys seeking a date.
Her scenes drew some laughs at a recent screening. In one serious scene, Winter was worked over by an attending physician in surgery and holds her own under the pressure. Like other doctors involved in the series, Winter said she had seen Wrong’s past work and it helped her trust him.
Dr. Philip Stieg, a neurosurgeon who removes a tumor from a patient’s spine in the opening episode, said he had a typical human concern about participating: He didn’t want cameras to catch him in a mistake. He was also put off by self-aggrandizement he’d seen in other doctors in Wrong’s shows, and he was noticeably low-key dealing with his patient on-air.
“I didn’t want to be viewed by my contemporaries as kind of a huckster,” he said.
Despite his track record and hospitals giving him editorial control, Wrong said he and his staff dealt on a daily basis with people who didn’t want them there and might block camera access for a key scene.
Choosing the stories and putting together each episode required careful attention to tone. Most of the stories they follow are sad; Wrong has given up filming in gynecological oncology and neo-natal intensive care units because it’s emotionally draining.
Too much bad news turns off viewers. But if every illness is cured, every wound healed, then the series becomes predictable and producers lose credibility.
“There’s a balance,” he said, “and we’re very mindful of it.”
Wrong has had strong support for his work through three different ABC News presidents. The latest, James Goldston, said helping to edit “NY Med” was his favorite part of the job. But it’s no vanity project. This is a big expenditure for a broadcast news division in this era and Wrong knows he needs ratings to survive.
Ultimately, it means more than ratings.
“It’s really hard to ignore the psychic rewards of producing the kind of television that you know for certain has an impact on viewers and, not to be corny about it, has a beneficial impact on lives,” he said.