You’ll be forgiven if you’ve felt rather glum about televised nonfiction in the past 15 years. You have a great excuse: “Dating Naked.”
Beginning in 2000, “Survivor” ushered in reality TV, a class of nonfiction compromised by the manipulation of facts, irresponsible editing, and fame-seeking. As the fad caught on, real TV documentaries — the kind that open up new worlds, that rely on history, journalism, and memoir — became even lower profile than before. For a while, docs were overshadowed by “Dr. 90210” and Dr. Drew.
“When reality TV exploded,” says Mark Samels, executive producer of “American Experience” on PBS, “it looked like non-scripted television would follow a form of sensationalism, exploitation, and low cost, that it would just suck the resources dry from the more serious and contemplative approaches to subject matter that documentaries often are.”
Now, though, as they recycle old formats and undergo lurid scandals, reality TV shows are losing ratings stamina, even diehards such as “American Idol.” “Reality TV is a gallstone that we’re soon to pass,” says Samels.
And at the same time, we are atop a giant wave of extraordinary documentary TV, a time when, in the footsteps of the pioneering PBS, many networks — HBO, Showtime, CNN, Al Jazeera America, ESPN — have been upping and improving their documentary content significantly. Not one to be left out, streaming Netflix just formed a high-profile partnership with Leonardo DiCaprio for exclusive nonfiction projects.
The signs of TV’s increasingly mighty documentary presence are clearer than ever this month, particularly in the wake of Robert Durst’s arrest and his possible restroom confession in last Sunday’s finale of HBO’s documentary six-parter, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” On March 29, HBO will again strike a chord of controversy with “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” and on March 30, PBS will begin premiering three nights of the Ken Burns-produced “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.” Both are based on best-selling books, and both will be among the more talked-about shows on TV for a few weeks.
By the way, the last time a Burns documentary appeared on PBS — last fall’s seven-part, 14-hour “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” — it was sampled by some 33 million viewers and led to PBS’s most-watched week in two decades. For TV executives, that kind of viewer response triggers nothing short of doc-euphoria.
“The word documentary isn’t dirty anymore,” says Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films. Last summer, HBO made its longtime documentary commitment official by giving over its Monday nights to films it has acquired, such as the Oscar-winning “Citizenfour,” or produced early in the process, such as the highly anticipated authorized biography “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” which premieres on May 4.
Burns, a TV stalwart whose name has become a trademark for a probing, unflashy documentary style, also sees the form thriving on TV: “It has felt that way for a long time, and its only beginning to crescendo.”
CNN, under the leadership of Jeff Zucker, started a film division in 2013, and since then it has delivered a number of quality documentaries, including “Life Itself,” about film critic Roger Ebert. The network recently picked up “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” the new film by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, who also made “Going Clear.” ESPN, too, has built a strong documentary following with its “30 for 30” series, which features pieces on people and events in the world of sports.
Nevins says HBO’s Monday documentaries can ultimately bring in 2 million to 4 million viewers — good numbers for pay cable, and approximately the same number range for its celebrated crime drama “True Detective.” And CNN has also fared well with documentaries, with “Life Itself” bringing in 506,000 viewers for its premiere and beating rivals Fox News and MSNBC. But ratings are not the sole reason these channels are excited about documentaries. They are a prestige product, one that adds value to brand identity and, in the case of HBO, attracts subscribers. Generally speaking, documentaries are adult programming that speaks to our hunger for new, different, and reliable stories as well as to our emotional connection — through the Internet and TV — with the rest of the world.
Many documentaries produced for TV do initially have a theatrical presence, beyond any one-off festival appearances. Even a brief stay in theaters can help promote a movie’s eventual TV airing, since, as Samels puts it, “those viewers become ambassadors for the film.” Also — and this is why HBO’s “Going Clear” is currently in a handful of theaters before airing — theater dates can make a documentary eligible for the Oscars.
But TV, and its attendant streaming platforms, has opened up new financial and creative opportunities for documentarians. Boston-based filmmaker James Demo, currently editing his feature-length documentary “The Peacemaker,” about Boston professor and global conflict resolver Padraig O’Malley, is heartened by the expanding prospects. “Having more players at the table looking to buy documentaries increases the chance that the film will be seen,” he says. “Add that to the democratization of the technology, so that people with a good idea can go out and pick up a camera, and you’ve got amazing filmmakers out there right now telling a broad range of stories.”
Samels says that few documentaries of any recognition level can get made without some kind of connection to the small screen. “Television financing and television distribution are essential,” he says. “Everything we have is based on the model of TV — the reach that we can command and the resources and financing we can attract because of that reach.” Rory Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated “Last Days in Vietnam” has been in more than 100 theaters across the country — but those audiences will only be a fraction of the millions who’ll watch it on “American Experience” when it airs on April 28.
‘There’s a presumption that PBS is Beacon Hill, Cambridge, Pacific Heights. It’s not. I get big ratings in Oklahoma and Arkansas and West Virginia and Alaska.’
Burns has been a fan of TV’s reach for decades. “You go to Sundance, Cannes, and Telluride, and let’s say 3,500 people see your film,” he says. “Then someone picks it up theatrically. And if you’re lucky, 35,000 see your film. ‘The Roosevelts’ was just seen by nearly 35 million people.”
For the likes of Burns, TV also offers the advantage of length. “I can’t get you to go to the theater seven times for two hours,” he says, “but a huge portion of America stayed home for seven straight nights, and grandma and the kids along with the parents watched it. It wasn’t a Faustian bargain. It gave me a big platform.” Lest you doubt his sincerity, Burns is currently working on a 10-part, 18-hour film on the history of Vietnam, to be followed by a seven-part, 14-hour film on country music.
Television also brings in a broad audience. HBO’s Nevins points out that when a documentary is in a theater, it attracts audiences who are “already inclined” to be interested in the topic. When a documentary airs on TV, unaware viewers can stumble onto it and are introduced to its subject matter. Burns also enjoys the audience range that TV offers: “There’s a presumption that PBS is Beacon Hill, Cambridge, Pacific Heights,” he says about the channel that has been airing his documentaries for decades. “It’s not. I get big ratings in Oklahoma and Arkansas and West Virginia and Alaska, the reddest of the red states. I like that.”
Ultimately, the growing prominence of documentaries in the TV lineups goes beyond ratings and funding. For one thing, as Burns points out, “There’s an obvious fatigue in the old dramatic plotlines. They’re familiar. We know the seven or eight plotlines out there, and we’re not being satisfied.” Truth, as the cliché goes, is stranger than fiction — something the Robert Durst story has reinforced. No actor could quite re-create Durst’s ice-cold eyes.
And then, at a time when images of the world generally arrive randomly in bite-size digital form on news websites and, unvetted, through social media, documentaries offer something richer, focused, and more authentic. At their best, says Samels, “documentaries can give you a little touch of something that feels very true. I think we’re all looking for that right now.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.