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  Nov 15, 1999

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Wrestling with Biographies

By TYLER MCLEOD -- Calgary Sun
A&E's landmark series Biography has been recounting the lives and times of kings and queens, heroes and outlaws, celebrities and legends since 1987.

Of the almost 140 new Biography hours produced each year, whose stories would prove most popular with A&E viewers?

William Shakespeare? Alfred Hitchcock? Ronald Reagan? Julius Caesar?

"Our most popular episodes of Biography, strictly in terms of ratings," says CarolAnne Dolan, executive producer of A&E's Biography, "Ozzie and Harriet, Andre the Giant and Ron Howard were way up there. Those three, I think, were the top."

Not exactly what you would expect from the network known for epic British miniseries and Investigative Reports.

"The thing about Biography is it does cover all the bases, it is all over the place," says Dolan.

"From Queen Noor this week to Andre the Giant to George W. Bush -- it covers the whole spectrum."

Biography narrows its focus slightly for Body Slam Week, running Monday through Friday at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on channel 26.

Famous faces. Performing arts. Politicians. Influential figures. Tragedy. Comedy. Profiling professional wrestlers isn't really too different from the standard Biography subjects.

"The bottom line is: If it's an interesting story, our regular viewers are going to stay with it," Dolan says.

"Which they've proven time and time again."

This week's subjects, in order, are Stone Cold Steve Austin, Calgary's Owen Hart who died tragically when a wrestling stunt went wrong, Mick Foley, Gov. Jesse Ventura and an encore of the popular Andre the Giant bio.

As well, Investigative Reports will rerun the Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling in its Thursday timeslot at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.

While Biography's fans tend to be of the addicted variety who watch it religiously, Dolan and A&E know these specials have to be made with two audiences in mind.

"There is some crossover. People who may not usually watch Biography or A&E come to see these shows," Dolan says.

"When we did the Andre the Giant show in January it was very different from our typical Biography viewer in terms of being very young men.

"They're not our typical viewers but they came for it, in addition to our regular viewers."

Successful airings of Andre's story and the Canadian documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows convinced A&E the interest was there for Body Slam Week.

"Wrestling has crossed a line into being a part of mainstream conversation, such a pop culture phenomenon, at this point that it's worth looking at," Dolan says.

"You can tell a story in a lot of ways. You can tell it in a glitzy kind of way or you can tell it in a rich, textured and thoughtful way -- which (Wrestling With Shadows) did.

"It was very successful and I think proved it's really the story that brings viewers."

Some of the stories A&E is bringing to viewers, such as Hart and Ventura, were foregone conclusions.

Nevertheless, the thought of A&E executives debating the merits of various professional wrestlers is a humourous one.

"To tell you the truth, I don't really follow wrestling," Dolan admits with a chuckle. "I know Andre the Giant from when I was a kid but I don't watch much wrestling right now.

"We looked at who the big names in wrestling today are. Obviously Stone Cold and Mankind (Mick Foley) are two who stand out and they just happened to have really interesting stories that support an hour of Biography."

And Dolan found herself intrigued by what makes these guys tick.

"The Steve Austin story is sort of surprising to me. He was the All-American kid who did everything right. How does this guy end up being the bad boy of wrestling?"

Dolan feels the secret of Biography's success lies in the early years of its subject's life.

"Regardless of my personal interest in the subject, I always find that first act of any Biography fascinating.

"You know the basics of a person's story usually after they've become famous but that first segment -- what was their childhood -- that really grabs me."