Nonfiction Edgier in Reality’s Wake

May 26, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The voice of God is gone.
That disembodied voice that once intoned over documentaries is being replaced by contemporary music, modern graphics and the personal focus of the story.
The documentary genre is undergoing a facelift, one that was fueled initially by the ever-present requirement to evolve and grow but that has been impelled of late by the need to stay fresh in the wake of the reality craze.
“In natural history documentaries you have had the voice of God telling you about the alpha male and the alpha female,” said Clark Bunting, executive VP and general manager for the Discovery Channel. “As broadcasters move into reality, how do you bring them back for nonfiction programming? That gets a lot more challenging.”
As entertainment reality-whether it be the eating of frogs or the scouting of mates-has co-opted the term “documentary,” many of the more traditional nonfiction programs have kicked it up a notch to stay current. What was once a rather staid genre has begun to reinvent itself. Examples range from National Geographic Explorer’s new format to TechTV’s slate of nightly prime-time nonfiction shows it refers to internally as “cool docs” to local TV stations’ upping the ante with edgier topics.
In short, it’s not your father’s documentary anymore.
The 19-year-old National Geographic Explorer on MSNBC will debut a new name, look, format and “energy” June 1 with Lisa Ling, formerly of The View, as host of Ultimate Explorer. She’ll be backed by a new title sequence and logo and more modern music.
The first episode is Basketball Diplomacy From Mao to Yao in which Ms. Ling interviews NBA star Yao Ming. The current ethos isn’t to hide the narrator behind a booming baritone voice, but rather to engage in the fabric of the story, said David Royle, executive producer for the show. “We are holding to the standards of accuracy but are letting reporters have some of themselves in there,” Mr. Royle said. Ms. Ling will be more than a presenter or a host. She’ll be on the road doing stories and has recently visited Iraq, Nepal and India.
“I certainly think viewers are interested in well-done documentaries with compelling personalities,” he said. “Viewers want something more gritty, more real. That is the direction we are moving in. We use small cameras and have adopted some of the styles from music video: faster cutting, switch pans, sense of pace. The show we have developed still is absolutely true to the core missions and values of National Geographic, but stylistically it is a faster pace, more visually quick.”
While Mr. Royle emphasized there is a chasm that separates today’s reality fare from shows such as Ultimate Explorer, he admits that his show’s changes are informed somewhat by the reality boom. “The way we are telling stories has been emphasizing the interpersonal relations, much like reality has done, so we are being influenced to some degree,” he said. “Maybe if someone has maggots crawling up his leg, we’d be more willing to show it, because perhaps people will feel more comfortable because we’ve seen someone on a reality show eat 16 maggots in five minutes,” he said.
Filmmakers are willing to use more creative editing, shooting and graphics to enhance the storytelling and reduce costs, said Laura Civiello, director of program development for TechTV.
The male-focused channel implemented a new programming strategy in late April that entails airing documentaries every night in prime time. The network carries what it bills as “Secret, Strange and True” documentaries on Sunday nights, offering untold or often overlooked stories from science and technology, such as medical researchers who experiment on themselves and whether it’s possible to recreate extinct species.
In addition, TechTV is airing the 13-part series Wired for Sex Wednesdays and other documentaries throughout the week
Audiences expect more in terms of energy and stylized production, a tougher task for a genre that’s traditionally earned its keep on artfulness, said Bill Brand, senior VP, reality programming, at Lifetime. The network planned to air May 22 a documentary special event tied to Lifetime’s “Be Your Own Hero” public awareness campaign. Lifetime’s Achievement Awards: Women Changing the World is a documentary and award show hybrid: It includes six 10-minute documentaries on different women and is peppered with celebrity presenters, performers and interstitials.
Discovery is one of the pioneers of the traditional, old-school style of documentary. The network has jazzed up its two-hour documentary movies with rich computer-generated images. The upcoming Walking With Cavemen June 15 will rely on CGI to create graphics of what our ancestors may have looked like.
The cable network also carries American Chopper Mondays, a story of a family that builds custom motorcycles in upstate New York. The show is personality-driven and told in a cinema verite style and is more like a docu-soap or serial drama, Discovery’s Mr. Bunting said.
Even local TV stations are getting into the act. San Francisco’s Young Broadcasting-owned independent station KRON-TV bumped up its documentary production from two to three a year to one every month when it became independent a year and a half ago. The station aired its most successful documentary ever in mid May with Sex and the City, about the seamy underside of San Francisco. It scored a 7.4/13.
The content was provocative and viewer discretion was advised, station manager Craig Marrs said. The show is indicative of a trend toward edgier topics in documentaries. “We are definitely trying to take them up a notch in terms of content, style of production. We are trying to engage a bit more for a dynamic audience. Clearly, we want to do it for the fact that from an advertising point of view, younger demos are more appealing,” he said.
Jacksonville, Fla.’s, independent station Post-Newsweek-owned WJXT-TV is sticking to its guns. The station still carries traditional documentaries for old-fashioned reasons: because the issues are important to tell, general manager Sherry Burns said. “They have never been the revenue generators. That’s not why you do them,” she said.
While documentaries and reality shows are only tangentially related, the reality buzz has made audiences more aware of the larger documentary genre and that such shows can be entertaining, said Cara Mertes, executive director of POV, a social issues documentary series that airs on PBS.
In recognition of the changes, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting hired Michael Pack as its senior VP, TV programming. His mission is to find new audiences for the documentary genre. “My job is to find out what new tack we can take to bring new players into the system and new kinds of content onto the air without sacrificing or diminishing or shrinking our existing loyal audience,” he said.