The announcement in May of a new Emmy for documentary underscores a growing appetite for nonfiction filmmaking on television, where docs are growing in number and garnering sizable ratings, mirroring the success of such hits as “Super Size Me” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” at the box office.
In the wake of widespread response to those and other popular docus, TV programmers are discovering that audiences raised on reality programming are more willing to extend that interest to nonfiction programming tracking other personal journeys.
And while TV reality shows — including the kind recognized in Emmy’s other nonfiction categories — might stoop to blondes in bikinis trying to swallow worms, networks like HBO, Showtime, PBS, A&E and Lifetime are aiming higher, with contemporary docs on topics like the perils of female correspondents covering the Iraq war, the athletic passions of quadriplegics playing Olympic-quality rugby, the pain of a black boxer toppling the great white hope or the struggles of a famed songwriter silenced by his pain.
“We now have an audience who’ve grown up watching real life unfold in front of the camera,” says Nancy Dubuc, senior veep for nonfiction and alternative programming, A&E Networks. “They are used to having entertainment delivered in that form. The success of documentaries at the box office gives the whole genre a buzz.”
A&E’s “Murderball,” the story of paralyzed jocks who play a terrifically rough game of competitive rugby, debuts in January ’06, but has already won an audience award and special jury prize at Sundance. “Bearing Witness,” which premiered May 26 on A&E, intimately examines the lives of five women journalists at different stages of their careers. It had a special screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“Television audiences are now savvy enough for something this compelling,” says Dubuc, though she’s quick to add “network cable has been doing documentaries for decades.” What’s changed is the audience hunger for them.
“Contemporary documentaries now function as a way to humanize the large issues swirling around out there,” notes Lisa Heller, VP of original programming for HBO/Cinemax. “The surge in theatrical interest in documentaries has de-marginalized them, catapulting them into the mainstream. And that’s good.”
Docs HBO is touting for Emmy consideration include “Last Letters Home,” “Classical Baby,” “Family Bonds,” “Death in Gaza,” “Left of the Dial,” “My Uncle Berns” and “Indian Point.”
“Born Into Brothels,” winner of this year’s documentary Oscar, is set to air on Cinemax in July, along with Cinemax-produced doc “Pretty Things,” about burlesque. “Unknown Soldiers,” a look at some stories of anonymous valor, aired Memorial Day.
“The public has caught on that contemporary documentaries are not ‘Eat your spinach’-type programming,” Heller explains. “We have moved documentaries from educational to entertainment in terms of reputation.”
“With ‘Bowling for Columbine’ and ‘Super Size Me’ you see unique voices with something to say,” notes Ann Foley, exec vice prexy for programming, Showtime. “Their success means more people are going to understand the value of the form. Also, as movies become more focused on big stars and big status, that’s left an opening for the smaller stories, ones that are highly personal, to be told.”
“Brian Wilson: Story of Smile,” for which Showtime is touting for Emmy consideration, combines both, offering a no-holds-barred look at a hugely influential pop singer with unique personal demons.
Upcoming docs “Same Sex America”; “After Innocence”; and “Rikers High,” an award winner at Tribeca, focus on the marginalized.
“These documentaries take topical issues, such as teens in Rikers prison struggling against poverty and violence, the backlash against gay marriage, or the difficulties of exonerated men trying to rebuild their lives, and have an impact, ” says Foley. “We’re interested in being provocative, especially for the 18-49 demographic.”
This audience, Foley adds, wants its television “unvarnished, not predigested.”
For PBS, documentaries have always been “what we do,” says Jacoba “Coby” Atlas, the pubcaster’s senior veep for programming, “and we do absolutely more than anyone, from ‘Frontline’ and ‘Nova’ to ‘Independent Lens’ and ‘POV’.”
“Unforgivable Blackness,” the story of boxer Jack Johnson, “did really, really well in the ratings,” Atlas says, as did “Broadway: The American Musical.” “Although we’re not ratings driven, we always want to know that as many people as possible are watching.”
Though best known for its made-for melodramas, Lifetime is finding audience support for nonfiction. “Terror at Home: Domestic Violence in America,” Lifetime’s hourlong, commercial-free examination of abuse against women got a 1.4 rating and “very strong young women demos,” according to Meredith Wagner, exec veep of public affairs and corporate communication. “It was the second-highest-rated documentary in Lifetime history.”