There was a time when nonfiction programming meant slow camera movement, a droll narrator and maybe even the occasional nap — or, on the other extreme, the crass sideshow appeal of specials like “When Animals Attack.”
In those days, there were two relatively distinct camps within the nonfiction world: the awards chasers (respectably offering viewers vital scientific, historical or cultural information) and the ratings chasers (usually lowest-common-denominator offerings bordering on outright exploitation).
But today, the lines have been blurred, with networks such as National Geographic Channel, the History Channel and Discovery Channel recognizing that education and entertainment needn’t be mutually exclusive.
Flip on the set today and docu-style programming refuses to let audiences sit on the sidelines. By the end of an hour, you could feel like you’ve roughed it through the African wilderness, spent a grueling trip on a crab boat or been arrested and jailed in a foreign country — and it’s all in pursuit of a noble cause.
“The name of the game is to entertain people and provide new insights,” Nat Geo exec VP of content Steve Burns says. “We’re in competition for viewers just like everyone else.”
The creators of this new kind of nonfiction programming see it as a way of telling stories by amping up the entertainment value without letting go of the informational or educational aspects of the material.
“It all feeds into looking at history in a different light,” says Nancy Dubuc, executive vice president and general manager for History Channel, which began airing “Expedition Africa” in May. The show sets four modern-day explorers on the legendary path taken by Henry Morton Stanley in search of Dr. David Livingstone. “I don’t think we should apologize ever for trying to make history accessible and entertaining.”
Dubuc and “Expedition Africa” producer Mark Burnett believe putting viewers in the center of the experience helps them identify with the explorers’ journey.
“It’s an opportunity to live a moment in history,” says Burnett, who stresses that the historical aspects of this quest shaped the course of the show. “We’ve researched everything, and we’re as accurate as we can be. You’re on the journey with them, so you see firsthand what happens when they’re trying not to get malaria or trying to get water from a lake with crocodiles in it.”
Nat Geo’s Burns believes audiences crave shows that offer meticulous fact-checking alongside riveting storytelling that makes them feel like part of the experience.
“In ‘On Board Air Force One,’ you see former President George W. Bush telling what he was doing on Air Force One on 9/11, and then you also see the transition team welcoming President Barack Obama when he takes his first step on the plane and orders a cheeseburger,” says Burns. “Viewers really rewarded us with high ratings for those kinds of details.”
Discovery Channel offers a handful of shows that deliver education with a shot of adrenaline. “Storm Chasers” producer Charlie Corwin thinks people come to the show with an interest in weather patterns and get hooked by the characters. Viewers learn about the storms along with the folks on the show.
“You can tell there’s no faking this stuff,” Corwin says of the risks the team takes to gather information. “It’s the true definition of force majeure. They’re risking their lives.”
The cost of equipment has also changed documentary television. Now cameras are lighter and smaller and cost significantly less. So subjects that were once impossible are now merely risky.
“We’re able to do things that were just not thinkable before,” says “MythBusters” producer Dan Tapster. “We probably go after more exciting things — while remaining faithful to science — because now we’re not as worried about the equipment.”
With “MythBusters,” Tapster believes this approach appeals to the viewers because it makes for great, over-the-top demonstrations of scientific principles.
“Television is a visual medium, so naturally people are going to want to see something that they don’t see every day,” says Tapster. “We still have to stay faithful to the aim of the show because our viewers are really examining everything we do and many of them are scientists.”
Thom Beers, a veteran producer within this emerging style of nonfiction storytelling, thinks his show “Deadliest Catch” captivates people because they use classic storytelling structure, high-end production values and put viewers on the boats where the story takes place.
“The elements all have to play together like a symphony,” says Beers. “Audio effects, storytelling and pacing — it’s right out of the scripted world. It’s a three-act structure.”
Dubuc believes these elements are crucial if you want to reach an aud used to contemporary production techniques.
“We always want to be at the forefront of consumer demand,” says Dubuc. “We’re telling these stories in a way that gives viewers a sense of the sacrifices made by explorers rather than in an old, traditional, academic way because they don’t respond to that. People want the magic of storytelling, and it’s our job to give it to them.”