By Carl Mrozek
At the recent Real Screen Summit I Washington DC, the panel, “Revenge of the Documentary” suggested that docs may be undergoing a rebirth on American TV in the next few years. Major brands like Discovery, National Geographic, Showtime, HBO, etc. proclaimed that they will be relying increasingly on documentaries to chart a course back to their core values and away from the homogeneity of similarly formatted unscripted, so-called reality TV shows.
“Six years ago we struck (Oscar) gold with Restrepo, about the war in Afghanistan and then we just walked away from it. Now we’re finally going back to our roots in science, exploration and natural history, the keystones of our 128-year-old brand. Our goal is to bring the best ideas and stories to TV,’ declared Nat Geo Channel's,Tim Pastore, president of original programming & production.
Tim Pastore - Nat Geo Channel
He cited a new mini-series on Antarctica, as a prime example of forthcoming doc mini-series, “In Deep Freeze, we blend science, exploration, and natural history into a six hour adventure. We’re also re-launching Explorer, the longest-running doc series on TV, to be even more innovative and impactful. To illustrate the new ”outside the box” approach at Nat Geo TV Pastore cited a forthcoming doc on Jane Goodal, directed by Rock star biographer (Rolling Stones, Kurt Cobain…)Brett Morgan, “We’re commissioning a filmmaker reknowned for his profiles of rock and roll stars to profile one of our rock stars, Jane Goodall” he said.
Discovery too will be looking to docs to help steer it ‘back to brand’ according to Jon Hoffman, EVP documentaries & specials, “We’re going to add more natural history docs to our accent on exploration and adventure while probing in greater depth. Some topics are so rich that they demand more time. Most doc makers tend to believe that they have too much material for a one hour story, and we want to give them the platform they need to tell their full story,” he said.
John Hoffman- Discovery
By contrast, CNN plans to focus on docs which can stand alone, even though they may belong to a strand like Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown’. Each of his doc features a different country or region and doesn’t require the viewer to have seen the prior episode. Each can stand alone, which is key for us as we have to be able to preempt them whenever we have to switch to a breaking news story – our core brand. Bourdain’s shows are one of our best rated even though greenlighting it was controversial as he wasn’t viewed as a “bona fide journalist”.’said CNN’s Amy Entellis, EVP talent & content development.
Amy Entelis, CNN
By contrast, documentary series, including mini-series, are the stock and trade at PBS. “We’re reknowned for our doc series like Independent Lens, American Experience, NOVA, Nature etc, While most of them are not episodic, some episodic mini-series do very well with our audience like Ken Burns series, the Roosevelts, Great Blue Live etc. We have the largest prime time audience in American for non fiction programming. Documentaries especially enable us to reach diverse and often neglected audiences with the highest quality programming on TV,” said Beth Hoppe, chief programming exec /general manager for general audiences at PBS.
Beth Hoppe, PBS
Showtime is also seeking to carve out a unique niche in the doc space with distinctive political, cultural and sports docs according to Vinnie Malhotra, SVP of documentaries.
He showed clips from a doc series called: “Years of Living Dangerously” about the impact of concussions and other traumatic injuries on professional athletes during and after their sports careers, and from ‘The Circus’ about the republican presidential race, starring Donald Trump. “We have no boundaries at Showtime. Anything is fair game,” he said.
Photos courtesy of: Rahoul Ghose, RGP