Stark Message Catches Emmy's Ear

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Prince William County is a contender for one of the local Emmy Awards for a low-budget public service announcement about drunken driving that airs regularly on the county government channel.

That's not bad considering the county spent $10 on a few Kmart turtlenecks for the spot's teenage actors and used grainy, seven-year-old footage from a police reenactment of a fatal drunken driving accident. It all comes together in a 2 1/2 -minute commercial spot.

Prince William is up against one other competitor, WUSA-TV, which produced a 30-second short about the breast cancer research fundraiser, Komen Race for the Cure. "We're thrilled to be even thrown in the mix," said Liz Bahrns, who heads county communications.

Eight other entries from the Richmond-to-Baltimore market also competed in the single-spot public service announcement category. They were rejected by judges from other chapters representing various regions of the country. Seven other spots by government-run production staffs, including the school systems in Fairfax and Montgomery counties, entered but were not nominated.

Prince William is the only government agency left in the competition, which has 146 nominees in the regional contest's 77 categories.

"It was something that we didn't really think we had a chance at but we entered anyway," said Desiree Wolfe, one of the ad's three co-producers.

The National Capital/Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will announce winners June 18 during a dinner at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington.

Bahrns's staff in Prince William produced "Death of an Innocent" in fall 2003, using county facilities, staff time, ingenuity and almost no budget.

The ad is based on an anonymous poem of the same name that has been widely circulated on the Internet to discourage teenagers from drinking and driving. Wolfe said she read the poem a few years ago on the Internet and thought it would be perfect for the county's recognition of Red Ribbon Week, a national campaign to stop the damage of alcohol and drugs on children.

One by one, five teenagers recite parts of the poem as they look into the camera, solemnly posed in front of a black backdrop and wearing black turtlenecks. The rhyming verses give a first-person account of a teenager who follows his mother's instructions to stay sober at a party only to die at the end, the victim of a drunk driver.

Producers also used what they had thought unusable -- hazy footage of police officers, emergency medical technicians and firefighters reenacting a drunken driving accident, Wolfe said. In the ad, the footage appears to be a dreamy flashback.

The teenagers' recitations and images of the accident are accompanied by the haunting hum of "Amazing Grace."

Max Braun, 19, one of the teenagers in the spot, said he got involved as a member of the county's Youth Advisory Council. He said the commercial must have been effective because he was often recognized and stopped as he walked the halls of Osbourn Park High School. "Being young, we think we're invincible. It's a blunt message," said Braun, who recently completed his freshman year at Louisiana State University.

Local high schools show the spot to students during prom season, Wolfe said. "It's one of those things where everything comes together," she said. "It can quiet a room, literally."

Municipal, school and other government staffs have been entering the local Emmy contest against larger, better-funded and more experienced TV stations for 10 years, said Fran Murphy, chairwoman of the local awards committee.

Only Montgomery public schools and Howard Community College have ever walked away with Emmys, Murphy said. Montgomery won for a public service announcement in 2000, and the college won for a promotion in 2003.

Government-based channels rarely win because they can't compete with the funding and technology of larger stations, Murphy said. "Often, in terms of resources, they are strapped," she said. "That's not to say that with creativity you can't overcome obstacles."

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