For many years after the networks virtually orphaned the documentary, public television more or less became a foster home for non-fiction programming.
In recent years, however, cable has adopted the foundling, nurturing it and helping it grow.
“Cable has spearheaded the return of popularity for the documentary,” says Brooke Bailey Johnston, VP of programming and production for Arts & Enter-tainment. She reports that non-fiction programs achieve comparable ratings to dramatic shows on the networks and in some cases, the series “Dinosaur” for example, even surpass fiction programs.
Narrowcasting–specialized avenues for specialized tastes–is an area in which the documentary can thrive. As veteran documentarian Martin Koughan points out, networks cooled to investigative nonfiction programs because they attracted only 15 to 20 shares and “back then a 30 to 35 share was survival.”
By today’s economics, in light of the decline of the networks’ overall share, reaching 15 million to 20 million viewers would be considered a coup.
As with PBS, cable needs to reach far fewer homes and success is predicated on percentage of the subscriber universe, not the viewing population as a whole. “It’s the same as if you have a 300-seat theater and you sell them all,” says Sheila Nevens, HBO video president of documentaries and family programming.
“We came into being with the full expectation that we couldn’t even pretend to attract the audience of an NBC or even the Fox network to survive,” says Gregory Moyer, programming head for the all nonfiction Discovery Channel.
Documentary filmmakers view this expanded universe for their work as a mixed blessing. Koughan argues that in making programming decisions, cable (and even network TV) “doesn’t want downer TV. They don’t want it if it isn’t upbeat. They go for warm and fuzzy. It has to be sexy and toothless. It has almost no bite.”
The genre of documentaries most popular on cable–nature films, biographies, historical analyses–speak for themselves. They represent strong, diverse, sophisticated programming, but are definitely not cutting edge. There are occasional specials such as HBO’s examinations of abortion, rape and Alzheimer’s , or Discovery’s telecast of Werner Herzog’s documentary on the burning Kuwaiti oil fields, that have immediacy and impact and court controversy.
“Many of our decisions are based on the mood of the time,” says HBO’s Nevens. “And since it takes a year to make, it has to have legs.”
“We more accurately reflect the diversity of the genre than was true in the ‘ 60s and ’70s,” says Moyer. “What’s interesting about Discovery,” he continues, “is that we do documentaries in the ‘CBS Reports’ tradition and also have someone like Robert Stone and a wild, wacky film on people who have been visited by aliens from other planets. I can’t imagine even CBS ever touching that kind of material.”
Like the networks, many cable channels are dependent on advertisers and restricted by normal broadcast standards.
Only pay TV operations such as HBO are free from most of those limitations and can afford to attempt riskier material. “Sometimes we’re lucky and we hit a nerve,” says Nevens, singling out “Into Madness,” about childhood schizophrenia. Other times, as with the Alzheimer’s special, “we knew it wouldn’t be a heavy hitter but it made an important statement.”
PBS has its own set of problems, says Koughan. “If it’s issue oriented with a sharp point, it will get heat.” He should know, his “Frontline” feature “Losing the War With Japan” was heavily attacked by Honda Motors, which wrote to 300 public stations nationwide claiming Koughan’s work was biased and that their view was not represented. Koughan says he had offered Honda several opportunities to comment and they had declined. Several major cities pulled the show as a result of the Honda letter.
The Oscar nominated “Building Bombs” has been rejected by PBS. According to Mark Mori, one of the film’s creators, the official reason was that it doesn’t give adequate voice to the nuclear arms industry.
Stitching it together
Filmmaker Carol Munday Lawrence, who traffics between dramatic film and documentary, bemoans the current situation, recalling that until the early ’80s, “if PBS wanted to do a project they would finance it in full. Now they provide partial financing and you have to stitch it all together by going to various foundations…”
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many of these funding sources meet once or twice a year. If you miss the deadline, you have to wait until they reconvene.
The future of the documentary in television is allied with its fate in the theatrical world. Says Moyer: “Multiplexes are moving away from just blockbusters and devoting one of the smaller screens to minority tastes. It’s exciting for us in the TV world to co-produce a documentary that is exhibited in a theater and then, we become the TV window.”