You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Age of Trump Forces New Ways to Approach Ongoing Narratives

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.”

More TV

  • Supergirl -- "Crisis on Infinite Earths:

    'Crisis on Infinite Earths' Recap: A 'Titans' Cameo and a Fallen Hero

    SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part One,” the premiere of the 2019 “Arrowverse” crossover. Bringing “Crisis on Infinite Earths” to the small screen has been years in the making, so it’s no surprise the epic five-part crossover kicked off with plenty of action on Sunday night [...]

  • Supergirl -- "Crisis on Infinite Earths:

    'Arrowverse' Team on 'Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part One' Loss and Crossover Stakes (SPOILERS)

    SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part One,” the premiere of the 2019 “Arrowverse” crossover event on the CW. The “Arrowverse” “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover kicked off with a bang: Oliver Queen aka the Green Arrow’s (Stephen Amell) death. With “Crisis” finally here, Harbinger (Audrey Marie [...]

  • Caroll Spinney & The Grouch36th Annual

    Caroll Spinney: Henson Family, 'Sesame Street' Colleagues Salute Muppet Performer

    Caroll Spinney, the puppet performer behind “Sesame Street’s” indelible Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, was remembered by friends and colleagues as a gifted artist who dedicated his professional life to the show’s mission of educating pre-schoolers. Spinney died Sunday at his home in Connecticut at the age of 85. He limned the Big Bird [...]

  • Rene Auberjonois at the International Myeloma

    René Auberjonois, 'Star Trek' and 'Boston Legal' Actor, Dies at 79

    René Auberjonois, best known for his roles in “Boston Legal” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” died at his home in Los Angeles due to metastatic lung cancer. He was 79. His son Rèmy-Luc confirmed the news to the Associated Press. Auberjonois was a prolific television actor, appearing as Paul Lewiston in 71 episodes of [...]

  • Caroll Spinney, with "Oscar the Grouch,"

    Caroll Spinney, Puppeteer Behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, Dies at 85

    Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for 49 years at “Sesame Street,” died Sunday in Connecticut after living with dystonia. He was 85. Sesame Workshop announced his death, calling him an “artistic genius” whose “legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be unending.” Spinney’s death [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content