At what point does content need a good edit?
As newspapers slash staffs, most are hoping to get by with fewer editors — never mind the associated onslaught of corrections. In much the same way, a recent influx of lengthy made-for-TV documentaries highlights the value of having a discerning second set of eyes to screen content — or at least suggest when it’s well past the point for a filmmaker to yell “Cut.”
The age of DVD extras and previously unimagined exposure for expanded director’s cuts and deleted scenes has also given birth to the multi-part documentary — projects allowed to leisurely spread out over five or six successive nights or weeks, often due more to creative vanity or a network’s need to feed the programming beast than the merits of the material.
Part of this complaint, admittedly, might be unique to the cranky task of TV criticism, where the army of new programs requiring attention is a bit like the hordes in “The Mummy” movies. No matter how fast you mow them down, more keep springing up.
Look around, though, and overkill is all over. Recent weeks have produced documentarian extraordinaire Ken Burns’ “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” which was beautifully shot and soberly executed — had this TV version of a coffee-table book not droned on for a laborious 12 hours, over six chapters.
Burns lavished 14 hours on his previous effort, “The War,” but the stories found in “National Parks” could hardly rival the gravity and emotional crescendos of the last great World War. By night four or five, it began to feel like a hostage situation — or one of those business dinners where the client has downed a few too many and regales his captive audience with repeated variations on the same story.
Still, Burns isn’t alone in overstaying his welcome — or at minimum, felling too many cinematic trees to make his point. IFC is in the midst of a wonderful Monty Python tribute, “Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut),” which indulges in its own six-part, made-for-TV and DVD version of Mr. Creosote-esque gluttony.
The Sundance Channel offered “Brick City,” a five-night look at charismatic Mayor Cory Booker’s efforts to renovate Newark, N.J., which almost felt like spending a real-time week there. And VH1 gave as many hours this summer to “Lords of the Revolution,” which — focusing on such personalities as Andy Warhol and Cheech and Chong — mostly recycled themes from two earlier four-part documentaries that nostalgically shed light on the current culture wars: “Sex: The Revolution” and “The Drug Years.”
Most of these are worthy productions — and in the case of VH1, a welcome respite from silly dating shows or adventures in celebrity rehab. Yet in practically every case, the cumulative weight of these five- or six-hour repasts appeared destined to leave all but those most committed to the subject matter at hand shouting “Less! Less!” before the curtain fell.
The irony is that concerns about demands on the audience’s time represent a genuine threat to the historic TV model. People are so busy multitasking that they don’t pay attention to ads, or record episodes in order to fast-forward through the commercials. Some time-crunching viewers now opt to skip programs on air and simply wait for the DVD release, enabling enterprising sorts to consume a season of “24” in roughly 17 hours.
These extended documentary productions — equal to the length of two or more theatrical features, even with ads excised — reflect a belief that people have a near-limitless appetite for stuff they really like, which is true — the tradeoff being that the audience subsets motivated by that level of passion for a topic are almost assuredly going to be relatively small by traditional standards.
By the way, a careful reader might notice that this column is a bit shorter than usual. Sure, it would have been easy enough to pad it, but honestly, who has the time for that?