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People Top 5
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- July 26, 1982
- Vol. 18
- No. 4
What Makes ABC's First Lady of Documentaries Run? Part of the Answer May Be Fear of Failure
It was, by Hill's current standards, a tame and unadventurous vision. Today, whether kicking up a spume of white powder while traversing the flank of New Hampshire's Tuckerman Ravine or guiding a slender canoe through roiling white water, she has cut out a life for herself filled with hazards. Not the least of which are at ABC Television, where, as the only woman currently heading a network news division (documentaries), she negotiates the treacherous currents of corporate intrigue.
It was in 1978 that Roone Arledge, the newly appointed president of ABC News, picked Hill to take charge of the ABC News Closeup documentary unit and make it more competitive in both ratings and quality with its NBC and CBS counterparts. Last January ABC's three-hour special FDR drew more viewers than Dallas in some markets and summoned choruses of critical praise. In the past four years Hill and her staff of 55, largely handpicked, have won nearly 100 honors and citations, including an Oscar nomination, 11 Emmys and two professionally coveted DuPont-Columbia Awards.
"When I took this job," says Hill, 43, "I had a clear philosophy of what a documentary should be. In the late '70s they had become boring and didactic, without much emphasis on digging or craft. Networks used them only when they wanted prestige, because they don't get high numbers and they are expensive." Hill was determined to make the films more provocative. "We wanted to bring a new investigative thrust to them," she explains. "If you have six months to do one, and a network's resources behind you, you ought to come up with some pretty dazzling reporting."
Since Hill took over, Closeup has homed in on such sensitive topics as chemical warfare, cancer in children, homosexuality, youth gangs in the Bronx and the specter of nuclear weapons in the tinderbox Middle East. "Pam has had a tremendous impact on the whole documentary field," says Arledge aide David Burke. "When she became head of the department, documentaries at the three networks were all going south. She made ABC News different, and the other networks began paying attention."
Which is just the way Pam Hill must have wanted it; it is not in her nature to go unnoticed. Sometimes she gives the impression of an exotic painted bird wrapped in a splash of plumage and topped with rebellious tufts of frosted blond hair. Her quick blue eyes hint at hidden currents of energy, and her staccato speech suggests urgent commitment. A blend of charm, intelligence and the jungle agility of the corporate gameswoman has helped her climb the network's precarious ladder.
Yet her professional achievements have not been without cost. Hill's first two marriages ended in divorce, and her work frequently kept her apart from her only child, Christopher, now 20 and a student at Bennington in Vermont. "I was naive in the beginning to believe so fervently that you can be all things to all people," she says. "You cannot have a demanding, high-powered career, be a great wife, entertain at home and be a terrific mother. You cut a lot of corners trying to balance your life. Women are just finding out what I guess men have known for a long time."
Since 1974 Hill has been married to New York Times columnist Tom Wicker. "He has been very sympathetic to the liberation of women," she observes, "which doesn't mean he isn't predictably masculine and furious when he finds out I won't be coming home when expected. Two-career marriages can work and be exciting, but it takes a lot of understanding of both sides." Wicker agrees. "Professionally," he says, "Pam is a perfectionist, and she has the moral courage to keep people going until she gets what she wants." Once, he recalls, as a tyro producer back in 1972, Pam announced to a panel of intellectuals who had just finished taping an NBC talk show that they were going to have to retape it and try to do better. "I've done 100 talk shows and never seen that happen," says Wicker, "but that singlemindedness about her work is relentless. It's not a business you can be secure in. If you get bad reviews for your last documentary, nobody remembers the good reviews you got for the one before."
"I think a lot of what I've achieved has come out of a fierce insecurity," says Hill. "That's what prompts the need to be in the limelight, and it's true also of many men who have a driving need to succeed. In my 20s I was endlessly saying, 'I cannot do this.' I'm less insecure now, but I can still feel that terror in the night." Yet along with the anxiety that success cannot banish goes the conviction that she has made the right choices. "Last summer," she recalls, "a charming man said to me, 'All this freedom is wonderful, but don't you think in the end that women are still dependent on men?' I said, 'No. The most wonderful thing that can happen to a woman is to feel secure enough to determine her own course.' There is a tremendous pleasure in being truly independent."
While other little girls back in Muncie were dreaming of wedding gowns and white picket fences, Pamela Abel was grooming herself for a place in the sun. "I had a father who sort of always wished he had sons," she explains. "He used to tell us girls we could be anything we wanted. We could be Indiana's first women Buick dealers." Mrs. Abel, on the other hand, regarded Muncie as a point of departure. "She made it clear she felt confined," says Pam, "and taught us that the world of opportunity was in the East, where the arts were."
So it was that Pam went to Bennington with her heart set on becoming a painter. Soon, persuaded that her talent couldn't match her desire, she wisely switched her major to history. After graduate studies in Scotland and Mexico, she married advertising executive David Hill and settled in New York as a foreign affairs researcher for Nelson Rockefeller, at the beck and call of boss Henry Kissinger. Neither the job nor the marriage worked out, and by 1965 she was the divorced mother of a 3-year-old son, with no clear sense of where she was going. Then she saw an NBC White Paper called The Decision to Drop the Bomb, about the planning and debate that led to Hiroshima. "It was instantaneous," she says. "I knew what I wanted."
Beginning at NBC as a free-lance researcher, within eight years she had become a director in the network's documentary unit and producer of Edwin Newman's public affairs talk show, Comment. Her superior, filmmaker Fred Freed, became her second husband in 1971. They divorced in 1972, two years before Freed's death. "Fred was a mentor," says Pam. "He was a very important figure to me. Tom has guided me too," she adds. "He has been deeply instrumental in my self-confidence, and I always consult him."
After moving to ABC in 1973, Hill produced documentaries on pornography, the dangers of asbestos, and health care for disadvantaged children before her ascendancy to executive producer in 1978. Since then her low-six-figure salary has helped buy an 11-room Vermont mountain retreat where members of her various families assemble. Among them are her stepdaughters from her marriage to Freed, Kaycee, 26, and Lisa, 23, and Tom's daughter, Cameron, 26, and son, Grey, 22. No weekend is complete without some kind of adventure, and Hill's questing nature tends to leave Wicker perplexed. "We go to Vermont, where it's very beautiful, and I just like to sit and read a book," he explains, "but Pamela gets all fired up with the idea of hunting a goddamn bear. We were looking at canoes once, and the salesman turned out to be the No. 3 kayak man in the world. She got terribly excited about that—and it was genuine—but I wouldn't walk across the street for the world's No. 3 kayak racer." Pamela quotes with approval James Dickey's line about "When your life becomes a bore, go out and risk it."
Hill is by no means foolhardy, though, and runs few risks that can't be taken in style. "Pamela is very competitive," says Wicker. "She not only has to be the best skier on the slope, she has to be the best-dressed skier." She never backpacks without hauling along a ration of elegant grub that might include prime steaks, fresh zucchini and a bottle or two of a reviving red wine. Sometimes, while Pam and the kids cavort in the woods, Wicker stays home whipping up a gourmet lunch for everyone and polishing his eighth novel, a Civil War epic.
Whatever the Green Mountain scenario, a visit with Pam in Vermont is no way to catch up on one's sleep. A frequent guest is Hill's sister, Annie, a designer of children's furniture in upstate New York. "I often come back from Vermont thinking, 'Oh my God, I need a vacation,' " she says. "Pam is a great corporate person because she likes challenges. She acts frenzied when she's in a crisis, and you soon learn that everything about her life is a crisis." Undoubtedly, Hill's hummingbird metabolism is partly a product of professional stress. "The stakes at ABC News are very high," she acknowledges. "There is a lot of pressure on me to see that my staff succeeds." "We only do 12 shows a year," says Hill's senior producer, Dick Richter, "so we can't afford to be mediocre. I try to defuse some of the tension Pam creates."
Yet if Hill is a certified provider of ulcers, she also inspires a measure of loyalty. "She is intensely dedicated," says Richter, "but she is willing to poke fun at herself and she is generous about sharing credit." Other associates are less flattering. Some film purists criticize her work for playing too heavily on an audience's emotions, while a few former colleagues say she has clambered to success by treading heavily on other people's careers. "If I thought a person had to be ruthless to succeed, then I wouldn't want to be in this business anymore," she declares. "You don't have to be ruthless—you have to be strong."
Strong enough, in fact, to accept the mercurial nature of network TV and the possibility of being dumped rudely someday on the street. Hill has considered that prospect and maintains, "I would stay in nonfiction programming and be very interested in consulting." Not that she means to leave anytime soon. In addition to forthcoming Close-up documentaries like next week's Mexico—Times of Crisis, Hill has assigned an investigative report on international corporate abuses, another on the United Nations, and is producing cultural films for the ABC/Arts cable channel. "Sometimes," she muses, "when I think of all the poetry I don't get to read and all the dishes I don't get to cook, it all seems to be moving so fast." But can she imagine what she'd do in retirement? "Ideally," she says, "I would live in the Tetons in a house at the timberline, with an herb garden and a black quarter horse stallion tethered at the gate." For now, though, there will be no riding off into russet-hued sunsets—not while there are bears left unhunted in the primeval fastness of television news.
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