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Documentary has its own dramatic tale

ABC News' effort to tell the story of the 20th century has become an epic drama in its own right.

The Century, the most ambitious television documentary project ever mounted, will have been eight years in the making before the first of its 27 hours hits the air next March.

Already, the program's budget has more than doubled to $25-million, it has burned through three top executives, and at least two serious efforts have been made to kill the series entirely.

At one point, the future of The Century was imperiled when it dawned on ABC's sales staff that telling the century's story chronologically meant that the first half of the show would have to be in black and white.

While the series' potential partners have ranged from the United Nations and the British Broadcasting Corp. to the Russian state television company, all have since dropped out, leaving ABC, a unit of Walt Disney Co., to foot the whole bill _ and take on some sizable risk.

Today, The Century project occupies a wing of ABC News in a building next to the set of the soap opera All My Children.

There, nearly three dozen researchers and producers are polishing scripts and splicing reams of footage, including the first home movies of Adolf Hitler and Czar Nicholas II, and footage of Japanese women leaping off cliffs to their deaths in World War II.

"I don't think there's been anything like this since the very earliest days of television," says Av Westin, a onetime assistant of Edward R. Murrow who was forced out of the network a decade ago after tangling with ABC News chief Roone Arledge, only to return last year to rescue The Century.

"It is, without a doubt, the longest-running news project in the history of television."

It may also be the toughest time in the history of network news to take on something like this.

Brash, sweeping documentaries that were once a staple of network news have moved to cable and public television, where audiences are much smaller and there is less pressure to draw big advertisers.

Viewership of the flagship network evening-news shows is at a record low, as viewers flock to cable or simply switch off the news altogether. And no network has been hit harder than ABC.

Since work on The Century began, ABC's World News Tonight has dropped from first place in the evening-news race to a distant second, and its legendary news chief, Arledge, is expected to step down in June.

Once viewed within ABC as the project that could inject life back into the news division _ and even prove that documentaries still have a place on prime time _ executives now concede the network will be lucky to break even on the venture.

"I think it will do well, but not sensational," says ABC News president David Westin, Arledge's heir apparent (and no relation to Av Westin). "We didn't do this for the money. This is not Titanic."

Even if the series doesn't get blockbuster ratings, ABC executives hope that as millennium fever sweeps the country, viewers will want a grand look back.

"It's the kind of thing great news divisions have done in the past and we don't do enough of now," Arledge says, adding that predicting viewership for projects like The Century is "a crap shoot."

ABC may have the audience largely to itself.

NBC currently has no extensive plans, and CBS has teamed up with Time magazine for a series that will focus on the century's most important people.

Cable News Network is planning a documentary series on the millennium but is spending less than ABC _ and there isn't exactly footage of, say, the 12th century.

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