Is Documentary Film Viable in a Sensationalized Media World?
Cinema & New Media Arts | On May 31, 2013
There has been a major shift in media culture as most TV networks have abandoned long-form information programming. In these times, with Twitter playing a big part in disseminating news, TV has to be punchy, quick and visual. The age of media mergers has seen showbiz merging with news biz, and soundbites have become shorter as the newscast story count rises.
Significantly, the best TV criticism of these trends in the US appears in a nightly programme on the Comedy Central channel. But ultimately, there is nothing funny about the way a media system – intended to bolster a democratic discourse – contributes to its decline.
News is increasingly becoming more about the image than the information – an approach to “coverage” that is at its core tabloid in its sensibilities, often intended for a memorable emotional impact that will boost media ratings and revenues. The race for “breaking news” is breaking our ability to understand the context of events.
This all happened as “the press” became “the media” – a time in which branding and on-air personality became paramount. I saw it happening during the 10 years I spent in television news, during which the multi-million-dollar anchors became more newsworthy than what they reported on.
Soon, the “big names” in media began focusing on the “big names” in politics. Landing hyped-up interviews with newsmakers became known—in insider parlance—as “getting the get.” News bookers began to see themselves like big-game hunters on an African safari.
When I started my career behind the small screen, each of the main TV networks featured a regularly scheduled documentary to expose wrongdoing and offer deeper analysis. CBS Reports was modelled on the tradition established by news legends like Edward R Murrow. NBC White Paper and ABC Close-Up all offered well-made in-depth programming until faster-paced segments on news magazines displaced the documentaries that were often poorly promoted and, as a result, poorly watched.
As these shows went bye-bye, independent documentary-making drew former journalists like myself, eager to do more substantive investigative work. Other, less political and artsier filmmakers – often graduates of film schools or refugees from Hollywood – brought their dedication to “look” and storytelling into a business that had once been driven by a sense of political mission.
A market slowly emerged on cable channels that went for lurid crime dramas, wildlife shows, adventure series and history programmes mostly on scary bad guys.