As this article makes clear, the past few years have seen a complete revolution in documentaries, and in the way television deals with them. While it includes all the players, it doesn’t tell the story of how the genre was rescued from intensive care and nursed back to health.
The lion’s share of the credit goes to Michael Moore, who has created the docbuster, the doumentary equivalent of a blockbuster movie. But he owes his success to considerable tectonic activity elsewhere. Sheila Nevins (right) at HBO and her team – given props by Jessica Shreeve at AMC – are almost solely responsible for saving the documentary form from sinking without a trace.
It is a holdover of the old mindset that docs are made by filmmakers, as opposed to people in television, that Nevins has been repeatedly barred from joining the documentary division of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Yet if it weren’t for her, the current documentary renaissance simply would not have happened. It’s also kind of crazy that academy rules bar the best documentaries made each year from being nominated– because they take evil TV money. This leaves a pretty sorry selection of docs to choose from to give the world’s most prestigious award to!
But HBO’s blazing trail in docs is being copied by competitors – just as it is in drama (what is Desperate Housewives other than Sex in the City?).
Trio – the station on the very verge of distinction – made media-savvy smart docs about TV and popular culture under the triumvirate of former Channel 4 UK boss Michael Jackson, Lauren Zalaznick, and Andrew Cohen (the latter two now at Bravo).
And just as it is in reality television, the UK connection is strong; the British Isles has been a documentary biodome during the years when no one other than PBS would deal with dreary docs. The idea of the docusoap, the form championed by Nancy Dubuc at A&E, for example, is a British import. A&E’s series of home runs – from Growing Up Gotti to the latest Vegas 24/7 – began with Airline, a reversioning of the UK series Airport.
The Discovery empire, kind of the Microsoft of factual programming, is headed by Jane Root, who, before heading BBC2, used to run an independent UK company called Wall to Wall.
In short, it’s another British invasion; bigger than the Beatles, bigger than new wave.
– Fenton Bailey