The Trump era has been a boom time for television. Ratings throughout the 2016 election cycle were strong at the three major cable-news outlets. And CNN and MSNBC continue to garner high viewership when executives had expected to see a post-election drop-off; they have done so by focusing laser-like on political news, in particular political news related to Trump and his administration.
But for slow-cooked documentaries, the Trump ascension and subsequent chaos has forced producers and programmers to re-examine not just particular projects, but in some cases their whole programming strategy.
Last year, Vice News began working on what was meant to be a documentary special about the last six months of President Obama’s administration. But as Donald Trump traveled the country drawing crowds by the thousands, accusing his opponents of high crimes and lowering the bar for acceptable locker room talk, the focus of the film changed.
“All Obama’s group wanted to talk about was how intractable the Republicans were and no one would work with them,” says Vice CEO Shane Smith, who exec produced HBO’s “Vice Special Report: A House Divided” and conducted interviews with Obama and other political players for it. “Then we talked to the Republican cats, and they were just going on about the Democrats.” The focus of the documentary became the political fractiousness that had swallowed whole the legislative process in Washington, D.C.
The election of Trump in November secured that division as the dominant political story to tell.
“When it actually happened, it was proof positive of the fact that the system is broken so much that this demagogic populist can come along and get enough people on his side to get elected,” Smith says of the victory.
During the election campaign and since, Trump has done more than alter or reinforce political narratives. He has accelerated the news cycle through his use of social media.
Documentary programmers, like news organizations, have learned to adapt with new formats and 24/7 news cycles.
Showtime last year launched “The Circus,” a weekly doc series from journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann and veteran political operative Mark McKinnon. The cable channel brought the series back to cover the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. “The Circus” attempts to solve the problem of covering an event in real time when stories are in a near-constant state of change by working on a seven-day production cycle that sees final edits being made just hours before the episode airs.
“I think we’ve tried to push the accelerator on some of these projects,” says Vinnie Malhotra, senior vice president of documentary at Showtime. He points to “The Circus” as one example of that push. Another is the Laura Poitras documentary “Risk,” about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that Showtime acquired in April. The film premiered at Cannes in 2016, but Poitras made significant changes to it recently to include WikiLeaks’ release of thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee during the election.
“The real-time approach to documentary storytelling is relatively new in politics, but it isn’t something that is foreign to Showtime,” Malhotra says.
Sports documentaries such as Showtime’s “A Season With” and HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” he adds, have shown that it’s possible to make doc programming that stays current. “I think we looked at that model and realized that it could apply to other types of stories.”
Libby Geist, VP and executive producer for ESPN Films and its “30 for 30” series, sees a need for doc programming as a counter to the news cycle. She cites ESPN’s Oscar-winning “O.J.: Made in America.”
“We’re all watching the news every hour of the day,” she says. “I always think, ‘God, if only there were something to teach me about how we got here and how do we get to where we need to be.’ If we in the documentary community can provide that context, that’s a real win for us and a lane we should be in.”
Meanwhile, even as political documentary has become a more complex endeavor to make and program, it hasn’t waned in popularity.
“I think there was a time when it used to be PBS was the dominant platform for documentaries,” Malhotra says. But with more outlets than ever for original programming across cable and digital, “the demand for premium documentary has never been higher.” He adds, “There’s almost no story more dramatic than politics in this country, and I think that documentary is obviously the natural genre of storytelling to take that on.”