"They came to us," says Paul Fine.
For weeks, he and his wife Holly had been looking for somebody to be in their TV documentary about organ transplants. They had asked everybody at the University of Pittsburgh Hospital, the world transplant center: doctors, nurses, administrators, aides.
In the end it was Al and Karen themselves who overheard some social workers talking in the cafeteria and approached the Fines. Al needed a new liver, they said. He was slowly dying . . . and there was no liver available.
"They were anxious to help others, to tell the story," Fine says. "They also thought maybe, if CBS was doing a documentary on them, they'd get a liver sooner. Later, when it went on for months and months, they thought maybe CBS was behind that, too."
Al and Karen are featured in "CBS Reports: The Gift of Life," tonight at 10. In a way it is the couple's openness, their articulate honesty about what a family goes through in this situation -- watching in horrified suspense while Al slowly deteriorates, loses weight, grows puffy on strong medications, agonizes about the future -- that makes this show.
But it never would have come off without the Fines.
"Paul has a talent for it," Holly Fine says. "He's like a father confessor. He spends hours with people, just talking. Calling them on the phone every day. Listening."
They are sitting in their house off MacArthur Boulevard, where she is recovering from surgery. She does most of the talking, but they connect with the easy intimacy of married collaborators. They have been making TV documentaries since 1971, when they met at Channel 7, and they have won practically every award in the book, including more than 70 local Emmys, a national Emmy, a Peabody, a duPont, a CINE Golden Eagle and 50 other national and international citations.
The Fines spent uncounted hours with Al and Karen -- no camera, just a tape recorder -- became fast friends, still keep up with them. Even the crew -- the light and sound people, the assistant camera operator -- were so much on the scene that Al named his new liver Monty after the light man. During the first interviews, the crew baby-sat the subjects' two children.
"We don't do talking heads," says Paul Fine, who handles the camera, while Holly specializes in editing. This documentary is probably the hallmark of their work. They follow their subjects through their daily lives, somehow getting them to relax before the camera. With some, like Al and Karen, the intimacy is so real that the viewer begins to wonder if he should be watching.
With some it just doesn't work. Adm. Hyman Rickover, being interviewed for another show, couldn't forget the camera for an instant. Boxer Larry Holmes sat and stared at Paul Fine for hours before he would talk.
There are other problems in making a documentary. For this one, there was the question of operating room gore. "We heard Ed Joyce, who's the president of [CBS] News, is very squeamish, and we were petrified," says Holly Fine. "There's a moment when you see a newly transplanted heart start to beat. It's this miraculous thing. He saw it in the screening and liked it. But we had another one we didn't use, of the old heart still giving a beat or two in its pan while the new one is sitting on the guy's chest. That was a little too much, we thought."
The Fines have been with CBS News since August 1982, and though they find the pressures greater, they are thriving because they are encouraged to do what they do best. Friends had warned them they would be changed when they left the cozy life at WJLA-TV, but it doesn't seem to be happening. For one thing, they are still based here, far from the corridors of power in New York. They've had to hire a sitter for their sons, Sean, 11, and Bryce, 6, because they travel more these days, but they are delighted to find that their ideas are sought by top CBS people.
Working together brings its own tensions. Both of them produce and direct, and each knows the strengths of the other, but there are times when (she says) "I'll suggest a shot and he's too busy with what he's already got," or else (he says) "she edits something out that I wanted in."
They tend to take their work home with them, but are learning not to.
"One thing is that we're honest with each other. We tell each other what's wrong. We get into a fight, and everybody scatters. Paul and I shut the door and we can get really mad at each other. But sometimes his suggestions are very structuring."
"I always think in visual terms," he says, "and she thinks in terms of information."
Both of them have strong ideas about reenactment. They reject the notion of docudrama, with its carefully crafted "reality," and when they do reenact a scene they make clear to the viewer what is happening. Their 1982 broadcast on the near-assassination of Ronald Reagan, "The Saving of the President," which first got them national attention, had to be reenacted, of course. "But we showed it as it happened. We interviewed 40 people," Paul Fine says, "and they would tell us exactly who was standing where and what happened when. It was their truth. You can't compare that to docudrama."
For "The Plane That Fell From the Sky," a show about a mysterious nose dive in which all 49 passengers and three crew members survived, they figured the real story was how the incident had haunted the pilots for years afterward. The Fines brought the survivors together in a mock-up of the plane and had them tell it just as they remembered it.
Paul Fine, 39, a Washington area native like his wife, started out to be a photographer. His father is the Washington Redskins photographer, and the minute young Paul realized he could see a lot of football and get his work printed in the programs, he decided it was the job for him. He started with Channel 7 as a news cameraman in 1969.
Holly Fine, 37, studied math and psychology at Marquette University, took up drama production and soon joined the management program at Channel 7. "Then I decided that it was the editors who had the real power, so I got into that," she says. She heads the local chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and helped found the Broadcasters Child Development Center for day care.
There are always projects. At the moment they are working on a program about a mentally retarded couple. "We do one hour documentary a year," she says, "as well as two or three pieces for '60 Minutes.' "
Paul Fine is thinking about the show that screens tonight. "It's a year of our lives," he says. "One year, one hour."
Some hour. CBS has set up phones for the viewers to respond to the show. It is expecting 1.5 million calls.