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Documentary TV: Genre Heats as Demand Grows

Jun 6, 2005  •  Post A Comment

When TLC later this year airs “Da Vinci Declassified,” its documentary on Dan Brown’s book “The Da Vinci Code,” don’t expect a lingering opening shot of a sunset on a hillside with a male choir singing in the distance.

Be prepared instead for fast-paced sounds and graphics more akin to a documentary on video games than one on claims about Jesus’ life.

The more frenetic style of the show is emblematic of the changes in the documentary genre as a whole. Audiences are armed with exponentially increasing numbers of choices, and programmers-documentarians included-need to grab viewers more quickly than in the past.

That’s not all that’s changing in the world of documentaries. The genre as a whole is enjoying a renaissance because production tools are more affordable, giving a greater number of filmmakers a chance. There also are more outlets. There are now about 30 networks, primarily on cable, that program at least some nonfiction content, said Richard Propper, president of the Los Angeles-based International Documentary Association.

But with so many programming genres in general spilling over into each other, what defines a documentary today? Many networks try to define it as broadly as possible to include some of their reality fare.

While reality TV has its roots in documentary film technique, not many reality shows can actually claim to be documentaries. Staged reality shows or contest-oriented fare such as TLC’s onetime hit “Trading Spaces” or ABC’s “The Bachelor” certainly aren’t documentaries, but shows such as Discovery Channel’s “American Chopper” or A&E’s “Dog the Bounty Hunter” could make a case.

Even so, few viewers would put those shows in the same category as the meaty investigative work done by PBS or HBO in the documentary genre. Those are the types of documentaries that win Emmys or Peabodys, and not simply because they fit the official definition of a documentary, Mr. Propper said.

Nevertheless, the genre is expanding beyond old-school, traditional forms. At the same time, more networks are commissioning fare for this more expansively defined programming category, including relative documentary newcomers such as GSN and Spike, along with traditional stalwarts such as A&E, Discovery, Court TV and National Geographic.

A&E and Discovery have both recently started units dedicated to fund theatrical distribution of documentaries that also can later run on the TV networks. A&E’s unit, A&E IndieFilms, also helps fund documentaries that don’t have theatrical releases but are shown in film festivals. That includes “Bearing Witness,” the film that A&E funded from the ground up and that ran last month on the network. The film, which was screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, chronicled over the course of a year the work of five female journalists in the line of fire during the war in Iraq.

The IDA does not track the increase in documentaries, but most documentary producers and cable executives interviewed for this story said the number is rising. They attributed that rise to basic economics. A filmmaker can procure a camera and a nonlinear editing system for about $15,000 today, compared with about $50,000 just a few years ago.

“I see more high-quality documentaries than ever before,” said Cara Mertes, executive producer for longtime PBS documentary “POV.”

The style of today’s documentaries is also a little fresher. They include more graphics and animation and fewer talking heads, she said.

What’s more, in many documentaries the voice-of-God approach, in which the narrator seems to know everything, has been replaced by a hipper, energetic, younger but still intelligent voice, Mr. Propper said. And thanks to smaller cameras and more flexible technology, filmmakers are able to get more close-up shots in tight places than before. “You can mount a camera on a tree as it’s being cut down,” he said. That’s led to more compelling video and less need for the languorously paced shots that seem to last forever.

The proliferation of cable channels has created a need for more documentaries on niche subjects, said David Carr, documentary filmmaker and co-founder of Beantown Productions, which is making the TLC documentary on “The Da Vinci Code.” Documentaries no longer must be about weighty issues but can involve a wide range of subjects, such as bands for VH1 or old-time Hollywood for American Movie Classics, he said.

Partly as an outgrowth of the Internet and the on-screen ticker on many news channels, the documentary format has become more visually intense, with graphics and text stuffing the lower third of the screen. Viewers are accustomed to reading a lot of information on the screen, said Ian Valentine, senior VP of programming at GSN.

As documentaries such as “Super Size Me” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” have become theatrical hits over the past few years, they have helped bring the genre into vogue at the networks, many of which have established units for theatrical documentaries. Discovery, paired with Lions Gate, will distribute the feature-length documentary “Grizzly Man” theatrically this summer, said Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks.

“Often documentaries have trouble getting funded,” Mr. Campbell said. “What we are saying is if you really believe in it and it meshes with our goals, we will fund it for you.”

A&E is aiming for something similar with its new documentary unit, A&E IndieFilms, designed to commission independent documentaries, finance films and help them gain theatrical distribution.

Though more documentaries are seeing the light of day, the challenge of capturing audience attention is also greater. “You have to make sure you deliver something they haven’t seen before,” said Nancy Dubuc, senior VP of nonfiction and alternative programming at A&E. “We have all seen the sunrise shot before, a million times. It’s not special anymore.”

A&E is going after more unusual topics. One example is its “Rollergirls” series, slated for a premiere next year. Focusing on a group of women in Austin, Texas, who are breathing new life into roller derby, the series falls under a broader nonfiction category, along with shows such as “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” which follows the exploits of Hawaii-based bounty hunter Duane “Dog” Chapman that has already become a qualified hit for the network.

Court TV is producing shows with a similar ethos. General Manager Marc Juris said documentaries are rooted in storytelling, a definition that would include “expert reality” docudramas about real people, such as Court TV’s upcoming “Parco PI,” about a private detective, and “Las Vegas Law,” which is centered on a Las Vegas lawyer. “I think the world has changed since they invented the term ‘documentary,'” he said.

“‘Documentaries’ does really imply an old style of program, because I don’t know that viewers would say these are documentaries. To them, they are stories. This is just a different way to tell a story,” he said.

Turner Classic Movies produces four to six documentaries a year that air as part of film festivals and programming stunts on the channel. For instance, it might do a documentary looking at the life of a movie star from the 1940s, then air a series of films featuring that performer. The programs serve as “accents” for the network and help generate publicity, said Tom Karsch, general manager for TCM.

Some outlets, such as Discovery Times (see related story), still do traditional issue-oriented documentaries. Link TV, which is carried on satellite systems DirecTV and EchoStar, airs documentaries on human rights, women’s rights, world poverty and other important topics, said Jack Willis, senior VP of programming. “We want to build empathy and a framework within which people can understand the rest of the world,” he said.

Even some networks known for documentaries are revisiting how to present them. PBS, which has championed the documentary genre for years through series such as “American Masters” and “POV,” plans to air the three-hour “Walking the Bible” docu
mentary early next year. While the topic is traditional, executive producer Drew Levin said, the show won’t be a “white-beard documentary” but instead will be told as an adventure in a style reminiscent of the “Indiana Jones” films.