“Breakdown” Producer Interview: “Peter Was Never Afraid To Tackle Complex Issues”

By Brian 

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Peter Jennings was committed to presenting documentaries on primetime network television. Tonight at 10 p.m., ABC will broadcast the final special Jennings reported before his death in August. “Breakdown — America’s Health Insurance Crisis” was supposed to be the first in a series of specials about health care.

“Late last year we had been talking about doing this,” producer Keith Summa said in an interview with TVNewser today. “Peter wanted to do a whole series of documentaries on public health issues. Clearly he thought it was a tremendous story that needed a lot more attention…the kind of stuff you could do much better in an hour than in a short format. They are very complex issues, and as you know Peter was never afraid to tackle complex issues.”

They started filming at the beginning of the year. Most of the interviews were completed before he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

“Once he was diagnosed, we continued to work on writing and editing. He was certainly very much involved,” Summa said.

Jennings was unable to narrate the documentary. (Interestingly, the narrator for “Breakdown,” Paul Hecht, worked with Peter at CBC.)

I expressed a bit of surprise that the program was airing despite Jennings’ passing. “The idea of this documenary not airing was never an option,” Summa responded. “Peter was very much committed to getting this on the air and wanted to make sure it did.”

> Also: After Jennings’ death in August, EP Tom Yellin talked with ABC executives about the show, the WP says. “I said, ‘I think it is something we should put on the air, but if you tell me that somehow it’s not right, then we won’t,'” Yellin recalled. “But there is a kind of profound appropriateness, that the last time you will see Peter Jennings in an original moment, he’ll be asking the questions you would ask if you could talk to that person yourself.”

Jennings and Summa have collaborated on documentaries since the mid-’90s. Summa’s first project for PJ Productions was “How To Get Fat Without Really Trying.” He also produced “The Gunfight,” “Bitter Medicine: Pills, Profit and the Public Health,” and “From The Tobacco File: The Untold Story of Betrayal & Neglect.”

“There’s a bunch of us that did hours with him,” Summa said. “Peter found producers that had different strengths and different ideas. I focused on domestic policy, public policy.”

Summa said the staff was surprised by what they learned while producing the documentary. “We certainly went in thinking we knew what was going on, but it didn’t take us long to realize things are very different from how we thought they were. In many ways, I think this show is health insurance 101.”