Tim Appelo follows the CBS News film crew through Milwaukee

It’s a freezing dawn in Milwaukee and a county sheriff is about to start another day hunting for fugitive welfare dads. While the sheriff tracks the dads, he’ll be shadowed by a crew from the CBS News show 48 Hours. And for the next 48 hours, I’ll be following 48 Hours in its pursuit of what is television’s hottest commodity: reality.

Despite the vogue for cinema verite TV, many traditional news shows cannot bear too much reality. On the nightly news, a 10-second sound bite is a mouthful; shows such as 60 Minutes serve up heftier slices of life, but only within a structure as formal as ancient Greek drama. Steve Glauber, who was a 60 Minutes producer for nine years, says the form holds no surprises: ”Whenever somebody goes on camera on 60 Minutes, they’ve been pre- interviewed — you know exactly what they’re gonna say.”

Now Glauber is a senior producer of the distinctly different 48 Hours, commercial TV’s only single-topic documentary series (on CBS Thursdays at 8 p.m.). Each week, the show airlifts about two dozen people to spend two days doing seven or eight reports on one subject.

The crews — a cameraperson and a sound person, usually with an on-camera correspondent — shoot everything in sight for 48 hours and dispatch up to 200 20-minute tapes back to CBS News central in New York, where they’re trimmed to 48 minutes, the length of a one-hour show minus commercials. (When 48 Hours made its debut as a series in 1988, it had nice numerical symmetry with 48 staffers, but that number has grown some.)

Except for Dan Rather, who introduces each show, and staff correspondent Bernard Goldberg, 48 Hours has no famous anchor types a la PrimeTime Live‘s Diane Sawyer or 60 Minutes‘ grand inquisitor Mike Wallace. Various reporters present disconnected six-minute vignettes; there is no stentorian narrator to tell you what it all means. Often it adds up to remarkably vivid journalism — and sometimes it’s a terminal snooze. Either way, 48 Hours turns a profit while typically losing the ratings race, because its budget is less than half the estimated $1 million per hour of programming spent by its entertainment-show competitors The Cosby Show, A Different World, and The Father Dowling Mysteries.

Most of its stars are ordinary folks caught up in a public issue, their loosely related tales illustrating a common theme. 48 Hours has covered an Alzheimer’s ward, a rehab clinic for addicted children, and, to mix it up, such fluff as the Westminster Dog Show.

The show I’m watching them make in Wisconsin is called ”Stuck on Welfare.” (It’s scheduled for broadcast on March 29.) Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson has enacted a plan that has taken 61,474 citizens off welfare, and 48 Hours is investigating how his bold experiment is working.

The idea behind ”Stuck on Welfare” was to feature people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet on television: a Milwaukee welfare worker; a family who moved to Wisconsin because it pays welfare people more than neighboring states do; a woman in a program called ”Learnfare,” which reduces welfare payments for kids truant from school; a mom in a workfare job-training program; a sheriff tracking down dads who fall behind on child support; and an ex-welfare recipient — a man named Louis Flowers — who, as one 48 Hours crew member put it, ”hated welfare so much he got three jobs — he works like a wild banshee 108 hours a week to support his wife and seven kids, while going to nursing school at night.”

Even with the energy of Louis Flowers, there was no way I could follow all the crews — it’s all senior producer Glauber can do to keep tabs on them. While the other crews were filming Flowers, a caseworker, a welfare family of five, and a workfare job trainee named Gloria Wyatt, I tracked the action on the deadbeat-dad hunt and tagged along with the crew following the governor.

The dad crew’s plan for Wednesday, the first day’s shoot, is tacked up on the bulletin board in the 48 Hours suite at Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel: stay with cops, pray for hope beyond all hope that we get a great guy. if we have a character we will follow it through to the county courthouse.

At the Milwaukee County sheriff’s office, CBS News correspondent Eric Engberg, the on-camera reporter for the fugitive-fathers story, greets me and introduces sheriff John Fockler, with whom he’ll ride on his daily rounds. I join the three crew members in their van, which follows Fockler’s car past the State House Tavern (”Let Us Change Your State of Mind”) and into the mean streets of Milwaukee’s North Side.

Sound man Ned Hall monitors Engberg’s conversation via a wireless mike, which facilitates a crew’s complex maneuvers. He listens as Engberg bonds with the sheriff by regaling him with tales of coke busts and homicide squads he has put on national TV.

On the street, Fockler tells Engberg, ”I hope we can get a live one for you. We’ve got 11 warrants on this guy — he should be good.” Then he makes a call. Knock, knock. ”Sheriff! (Pause) He doesn’t stay here? That’s funny, his sister says he does….”

The door does not open. Fockler will locate only one of the 16 fugitive fathers he’s seeking today. As Engberg and Fockler walk back to the car, athletic cameraman Lynn Rabren does 360-degree Brian De Palma pans around them while Hall scurries along picking up natural sound —shoes crunching snow, plaintive canine howls nearby, sirens in the distance.

Many closed doors later, somebody finally lets the news crew in. The camera pans past a piano in the foyer with a hymnal opened to ”Fear Them Not!” and ”Bless Our Meeting Together.” The bathrobed dad tells the sheriff that he’s unemployed and just home from a cancer operation. The sheriff gently advises him to visit the courthouse — ”if you feel up to it.”

Outside the house, the sheriff says, ”Politically, it’s a very popular notion now: ‘Let’s make all these fathers pay support.’ Great idea — let’s get all the fathers jobs first. My job is just a sop to the public. Basically, it’s a civil matter, and what is a cop?” Engberg, picking up on a remark the sheriff made off-camera, replies, ”A social worker with a ggn?” ”Thank you,” the sheriff says. ”That’s what we like to think.”

During a typical fast-food cop lunch, the crew hears bad news: Another crew’s van was burglarized. It has happened before. On a 48 Hours in San Francisco, a cameraman actually joined a police sting operation to get his stuff back. ”He went as a mole, an undercover agent, and they arrested the guy,” Engberg says.” It was probably better than the shoot itself.” The show keeps costs down by using free-lancers who use their own equipment, so the theft potentially represents an $80,000 loss for the photographer himself. Except for Rather and chief correspondent Goldberg, the show’s talent costs are modest.

Because Fockler hasn’t found a fugitive father to take to jail, he takes the crew to the holding tank at the county courthouse, where two enthusiastic interview subjects turn up. ”Sure, we’ll cooperate,” says one, a well-dressed guy, except that his zipper is down and he can’t reach it with his hands shackled behind his back. ”We’ve got a story to tell.” ”Well, we’ve got a camera to listen,” says associate producer Judy Bernstein, and a procession of cops, prisoners, and newspeople threads through the mazelike building to Family Court.

After a chat with the guy with the unzipped fly, Engberg tells me, ”It’s a good angle for our story, a perfectly illustrative little nugget. He was drivin’ down the road, got stopped in a routine traffic check, they slap him with an old warrant for nonsupport, and the next thing you know he’s in jail, so he loses his job. Talk about Kafka!”

But Engberg is out of luck too: It turns out that the subject was busted for allegedly driving with a revoked license, and so his case is tangential to a welfare story. ”You have just witnessed a classic 48 Hours snag,” Engberg says ruefully. ”You get a very articulate subject who’s angry at the system, and then find out that the facts have nothing to do with the story you’re working on.” So the interview is dropped. As the show’s executive producer, Andrew Heyward, has put it,” 48 Hours is made at nosebleed pace by traditional documentary standards. We don’t wait six months for something interesting to happen. Once the clock starts, whatever happens happens. If the person is dull or has a dull day, we’re in trouble.” The ticking stopwatch of 60 Minutes really would be a more apt symbol for 48 Hours — it’s much more at the mercy of the clock.

Back at the 48 Hours hotel suite, the troops regroup, chow down pastries, and chart the next day’s battle plan. Producer Stewart Bird will spend the night on a raid in Racine, where cops suspect that food stamps are being bartered for dope. Bernstein works on the search for a welfare dad; senior producer Glauber is elated because most of the stolen gear was found undamaged, permitting the crew to spend the next day shooting a Learnfare participant named Latrina. But Glauber’s relief is abruptly undone by a troubling phone call. Hanging up, he mutters morosely, ”Tacoma’s on fire!” It seems The Morning News Tribune, a Tacoma newspaper, is about to run a scathing denunciation of the Feb. 22 show, which publicizes a massive shootout between local citizens at an alleged Tacoma crack house. Halfway through this week’s shoot, he is already catching flak for the previous one. In a side room, somebody’s screening Goldberg’s interview with hard-working, welfare-hating Louis Flowers, who makes it tough on the cameraman by bouncing around his home, compulsively cleaning. I ask Goldberg, the living master of the 48 Hours interview, whether I might interview him. ”Sorry,” Goldberg says, ”I don’t talk anymore. It’s nothing personal.”

On Thursday morning at the statehouse, Governor Thompson is more voluble — he clearly has high hopes that today’s shoot will be his own little movie. When Wisconsin’s FBI chief walks into his office and looks startled to find a lens in his face, Thompson kids him: ”Hey, c’mon, the FBI springs cameras on people often enough!” Then Thompson’s off on his welfare-reform road show, with 48 Hours in close pursuit.

As Thompson soon will discover, the real auteur of today’s news movie is Thomas Flynn, the producer of this shoot. Flynn ebulliently explains that he has managed to put a camera and correspondent Doug Tunnell in Thompson’s car on the way from the last welfare press conference to a big reception given by black community leaders at a brewery-turned-luxury-apartment complex uneuphoniously called the Blatz.

”The governor is going to tell Doug, ‘This program is my baby — it’s great,” Flynn says. ”But Doug, who’s just spent a day and a half with a single mom in a workfare job-training program, is going to say, ‘Ah, but I know a lady named Gloria Wyatt, and Gloria’s going to go through your program. Maybe she’s gonna get a job and earn $5.50 an hour, and after two years you’re going to drop her health and child-care benefits, and she’s not going to be able to survive — she’s gonna go right back on welfare. What happens to Gloria?’ People watching know Gloria.”

Gloria’s reality collides neatly with the governor’s theory. It is the 48 Hours producer’s ultimate high.

Thursday night, the news crews convene once more at the hotel, exhausted, to watch 48 Hours and find out the fate of the 3,000 or so minutes of film % some of them shot in Tacoma. Friday morning they go home — to New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, or Miami — and await their next assignments.

And this coming Thursday night at 8, when the welfare show is broadcast, they’ll tensely assemble again in another hotel suite somewhere to see what became of their work in Wisconsin.

The crews have scant influence over the editing; even the producers and correspondents, who have more, can’t always envision the big picture while assembling the multiple parts. Only executive producer Heyward knows how it all fits together. In a sense, the show will be news to many of its creators too.

They share a fierce conviction that the news they bear is more real than television’s regular fare.

At Thompson’s last press conference Thursday, Flynn, noting the news crews setting up their tripods, said, ”See? They turn their cameras on when the governor starts talking and turn ’em off when he stops. The governor got his say — but that wasn’t what happened here.”