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Documentary film is a broad category of visual expression that is based on the attempt, in one fashion or another, to "document" reality. Although "documentary film" originally referred to movies shot on film stock, it has subsequently expanded to include video and digital productions that can be either direct-to-video or made for a television series. Documentary, as it applies here, works to identify a "filmmaking practice, a cinematic tradition, and mode of audience reception" that is continually evolving and is without clear boundaries.
The word "documentary" was first applied to films of this nature in a review of Robert Flaherty's film Moana (1926), published in the New York Sun on 8 February 1926 and written by "The Moviegoer", a pen name for documentarian John Grierson. In the 1930s, Grierson further argued in his essay First Principles of Documentary that Moana had "documentary value". Grierson's principles of documentary were that cinema's potential for observing life could be exploited in a new art form; that the "original" actor and "original" scene are better guides than their fiction counterparts to interpreting the modern world; and that materials "thus taken from the raw" can be more real than the acted article. In this regard, Grierson's views align with Vertov's contempt for dramatic fiction as "bourgeois excess," though with considerably more subtlety. Grierson's definition of documentary as "creative treatment of actuality" has gained some acceptance, though it presents philosophical questions about documentaries containing stagings and reenactments. In his essays, Dziga Vertov argued for presenting "life as it is" (that is, life filmed surreptitiously) and "life caught unawares" (life provoked or surprised by the camera).
DOCUMENTARY The television documentary is an adaptable form of nonfiction programming that has served various functions throughout the medium's history: as a symbol of prestige for advertisers and networks, a focal point for national attention on complex issues, a record of the human experience and the natural world, and an instrument of artistic and social expression. Unlike other programming on American television, documentaries have typically been sustained for reasons other than high ratings and ad sales. Consequently, the health of the documentary form serves as an indicator of a network's commitment to news and as a barometer of social, political, and economic dynamics. A documentary is defined as a nonfiction report that devotes its full time slot to one thesis or subject, usually under the guidance of a single producer. Part of the fascination with documentaries lies in their unique blend of writing, visual images, sound tracks, and the individual styles of their producers. In addition to their particular contribution to the television medium, however, documentaries are notable because they have intertwined with wrenching moments in history. These characteristics have inspired some to describe documentaries as among the finest moments on television and as a voice of reason, while others have criticized them as inflammatory. TV documentaries, as explained by A. William Bluem in the classic, Documentary in American Television, evolved from the late 1920s and 1930s works of photojournalists and film documentarists, like Roy Stryker, John Grierson, and Pare Lorentz. Bluem writes, "they wished that viewers might share the adventure and despair of other men's lives, and commiserate with the downtrodden and underprivileged." The rise of radio in World War II advanced the documentary idea, especially the distinguished works of CBS writer Norman Corwin and the reporting of Edward R. Murrow. In 1946, Murrow created the CBS documentary unit, which linked documentary journalism with the idea that broadcasters owed the public a news service in exchange for lucrative station licenses. Technology has also been a force in the documentary's evolution. The editing of audiotape on the 1949 CBS record, I Can Hear It Now, facilitated the origin of the radio documentary. On NBC radio, the Living series (1949-51), used taped interviews and helped move the form away from dramatizations and toward actualities. The genesis of the American TV documentary tradition is attributed to the CBS series See It Now, started in 1951 by the legendary team of Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. See It Now set the model for future documentary series. Producers shot their own film rather than cannibalize other material, worked without a prepared script and allowed a story to emerge, avoided using actors, and produced unrehearsed interviews. This independence contributed to the credibility of See It Now's voice, as did Murrow and Friendly's courage in confronting controversy. The most notable of the See It Now programs include several reports on McCarthyism, an episode that illustrates the uneasy association that exists between controversial documentaries, politics, and industry economics. The Aluminum Company of America, Alcoa, sought to sponsor See It Now, which featured the esteemed Murrow, to improve its image following antimonopoly decisions by the courts. As McCarthyism increasingly damaged innocent reputations, Murrow and Friendly used their series to expose the groundless attacks. "A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy" in 1954 employed the Senator's own words to discredit his false claims. Such programs made CBS and Alcoa uneasy. Alcoa refused to publicize or pay for some of the productions. Changing market conditions forced the company to withdraw sponsorship at the end of the 1955 season, and the program lost its weekly time period. In June 1955, CBS began airing The $64,000 Question, which greatly increased revenues for its time slot, as well as for adjacent periods. In a climate that included political pressure on the network and its sponsor, coupled with economic pressures that favored revenues over prestige, support for See It Now waned and the program was scaled back to occasional broadcasts that lasted until summer 1958. Other notable series of the 1950s include television's first major project in the compilation tradition, Victory at Sea (1952-53). Produced by Henry Solomon, this popular NBC series detailed World War II sea battles culled from 60 million feet of combat film footage. It was a paean to freedom and the overthrow of tyranny. Another popular series ran on CBS from 1957 to 1966. The Twentieth Century was a history class for millions of American TV viewers, produced throughout its entire run by Burton (Bud) Benjamin. The absence of ABC as a major presence in the documentary field in the 1950s is a telling indicator of television history. ABC was the weak third network, lacking the resources, affiliate strength, and audience of its rivals. Since CBS and NBC dominated the airwaves, each could counterprogram the other's entertainment hits with documentaries. The more the industry tended toward monopoly, the better the climate for documentaries. Documentaries soared in quality and quantity during the early 1960s, a result of multiple factors. In The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years, Mary Ann Watson articulates how the confluence of technology with social dynamics energized the television documentary movement. Pressure on the industry to restore network reputations following the Quiz Show Scandals spurred the output of high-quality nonfiction programming. The May 1961 "Vast Wasteland" speech by FCC chairman Newton N. Minow and the "raised eyebrow" of government further motivated the networks to accelerate their documentary efforts as a way of protecting broadcast station licenses and stalling FCC hints that the networks themselves should be licensed. President Kennedy was also an advocate of documentaries, which he felt were important in revealing the inner workings of democracy. The availability of lightweight 16mm film equipment enabled producers to get closer to stories and record eyewitness observations through a technique known as cinema verite, or direct cinema. A significant development was the wireless synchronizing system, which facilitated untethered, synchronized sound-film recordings, pioneered by the Drew Associates. Primary (1960) was a breakthrough documentary. Produced by Robert Drew and shot by Richard Leacock, the film featured the contest between Senators John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in the 1960 Wisconsin primary. For the first time, viewers of Time-Life's four television stations followed candidates through crowds and into hotel rooms, where they awaited polling results. Through the mobile-camera technique Primary achieved an intimacy technique never before seen, and established the basic electronic news gathering shooting style. In Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, Drew Associates producer Gregory Shuker took cameras into the Oval Office to observe presidential meetings over the crisis precipitated by Alabama Governor George Wallace, who physically blocked the entry of two African-American students to the University of Alabama. The program aired in October 1963 on ABC and triggered a storm of protest over the admission of cameras into the White House. The peak for TV documentary production was the 1961-62 season--the three networks aired more than 250 hours of programming. Each network carried a prestige documentary series. CBS Reports, produced by Fred Friendly, premiered in 1959 and became a weekly documentary series in the 1961-62 season. NBC White Paper, produced by Irving Gitlin, first aired in November 1960 and immediately thrust itself into hotly contested issues, like the U-2 spy mission and the Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins. The White Paper approach featured meticulous research and analysis. At ABC the job of developing a documentary unit fell to John Secondari. Since sponsor Bell & Howell produced film cameras and projectors, the artistic quality of the filmed presentation was important and engendered an attention to aesthetics that carried over in later years on ABC News documentaries. The Bell & Howell Close-Up! series, which also aired productions by Drew Associates, like others of the period dealt with race relations, "Cast the First Stone" and "Walk in My Shows," and Cold War themes, "90 Miles to Communism" and "Behind the Wall." Newton Minow also spurred network affiliates to increase documentary broadcasts. Clearances for CBS Reports jumped from 115 to 140 stations. The production of local documentaries surged, creating a favorable environment for independent producers. David Wolper, whose Wolper Productions enjoyed a growth spurt in 1961, said, "Maybe we should thank Newton Minow for a fine publicity job on our behalf." Wolper's unique contribution to syndicated TV documentaries includes "The Race for Space" (1958), and the series Biography, the National Geographic Society Special, and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. The favorable climate for TV documentaries in the Kennedy era also nurtured an international collaboration that began in late 1960. Intertel came into being when five groups of broadcasters in the four major English-speaking nations formed the International Television Federation. The participants were Associated Rediffusion, Ltd. of Great Britain, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and in America, the National Educational Television and Radio Center and the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company. In the United States Intertel was piloted by NET's John F. White and Robert Hudson and by Westinghouse Group W executives Donald McGannon and Richard M. Pack. Intertel sought to foster compassion for the human problems of member nations--to teach countries how to live together as neighbors in a world community, which Bluem characterized as "the greatest service which the television documentary can extend." In a speech reported in Television Quarterly, historian Erik Barnouw characterized the documentary as a "necessary kind of subversion" that "focuses on unwelcome facts, which may be the very facts and ideas that the culture needs for its survival." Throughout the turbulent 1960s, documentaries regularly presented "unwelcome facts." ABC offered a weekly series beginning in 1964, called ABC Scope. As the Vietnam war escalated, the series became "Vietnam Report," from 1966-68. NBC aired Vietnam Weekly Review. CBS launched an ambitious seven-part documentary in 1968 called Of Black America. The year 1968 also marked a change in the influence of network news and a drop in TV documentary production. Affiliate stations bristled over network reports on urban violence, the Vietnam War, and antiwar protests. The Nixon administration launched an assault on the media and encouraged station owners to complain about news coverage in exchange for deregulation. TV coverage of the Democratic National Convention triggered protests against network news. During this social, political, and economic revolution, network management experimented with less-controversial programs. Each network introduced a newsmagazine to complement evening news and documentaries. Ray Carroll reports the newsmagazine became a substitute for documentaries in the late-1960s and throughout the 1970s, and the number of long-form reports dropped. Sixty Minutes on CBS premiered in 1968, and after a slow start for several years, achieved unparalleled success. NBC followed in 1969 with First Tuesday. ABC's answer was The Reasoner Report, launched in 1973, the same year the network resurrected the CloseUp! documentary series. In the 1970s, ABC's entertainment programs began to attract large audiences. To establish itself as a full-fledged network, ABC strengthened its news division and added the prestige documentary series, ABC CloseUp!, produced by Av Westin, William Peters, Richard Richter, and Pam Hill. Under Hill's guidance, the CloseUp! unit excelled in documentary craft, featuring artfully rendered film, poetic language, and thoughtful music tracks. The Louvre: A Golden Prison American Masters: Martha Graham: The Dancer Revealed Against the Odds: The Artists of the Harlem Renaissance Frontline: The Secret File on J. Edgar Hoover The three-way competition for prime-time audiences reduced airtime for documentaries. However, ABC's re-entry into the documentary field forced competitors to extend their documentary commitment, a rivalry that carried into the Reagan years. Pressure continued to mount against documentaries, though, in the 1970s. In the most celebrated case, the 1971 CBS documentary The Selling of the Pentagon resulted in a Congressional investigation into charges of unethical journalism. Network documentaries virtually disappeared during the Reagan years; in 1984 there were eleven. The FCC under Mark Fowler eliminated requirements for public-service programming. Competition from cable, independents, and videocassettes eroded network audiences. The Reagan administration advocated a society based on individualism; economics became paramount, while support for social programs declined. Documentaries also suffered from controversies over the CBS programs The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception and People Like Us, and from an increase in libel suits and deregulation, which offered financial incentives to broadcasters in lieu of public-service programming. In this environment, the network documentary, which was rooted in the Roosevelt era and frequently endorsed collective social programs, became an anachronism. The documentary's decline in the Reagan years is one indicator of the ebbing of the New Deal influence on American culture. After the three network sales at mid-decade, the new owners required news divisions to earn a profit. The most successful experiment was the 1987 NBC Connie Chung life-style documentaries, Scared Sexless and Life in the Fat Lane. These programs demonstrated that a combination of celebrity anchor, popular subjects, and updated visual treatments could appeal to larger audiences. In time, as entertainment costs rose and ratings fell, these infotainment programs evolved into a stream of popular newsmagazines, which became cost-effective replacements for entertainment shows. The documentary thrived on public television in the 1980s. PBS premiered FRONTLINE in 1983, an acclaimed investigative series produced by David Fanning. The 13-hour Vietnam: A Television History also aired in 1983. In 1987, the network broadcast Eyes on the Prize. Produced by Henry Hampton, this moving series chronicles the story of the modern civil rights movement from the beginnings of the Montgomery bus boycott to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The success of Eyes I failed to translate into easier fund-raising for the second series, which was more controversial. Other PBS series include P.O.V., The American Experience, and NOVA. In the 1980s, a shift in the political climate hindered government support for public television. Conservatives objected to what was perceived as a liberal bias in its programming. As on commercial television, the aura of controversy encumbers the documentary form on PBS. Cable television has made a substantial commitment to noncontroversial documentaries since the mid-80s. The Arts and Entertainment Network, formed in 1984, features documentaries, as does The Discovery Channel, launched in 1985. To date none of the cable documentaries has attracted the viewership of their network counterparts, nor have they tackled sensitive issues on a regular basis. This conforms to what has been a recurring relationship in the documentary experience and suggests another way in which the tone and frequency of documentaries reflect American culture: The greater the national emphasis on marketplace, the less likely it is for commercial documentaries to excel as craft or grapple with complex problems and suggest social action. The more the nation emphasizes public service, the greater the networks' commitment to documentary art and its ability to be a tool for social justice. -Tom Mascaro FURTHER READING Barnouw,Erik. Documentary, (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993). Benjamin, Burton. Fair Play : CBS, General Westmoreland, and How a Television Documentary Went Wrong. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Bluem, A. William. Documentary in American Television, (NY: Hastings House, 1965). Brown, Les. "The FCC Proudly Presents the Vast Wasteland," Channels of Communications (New York), Mar/Apr 1983. Carroll, Raymond Lee.Factual Television in America: An Analysis of Network Television Documentary Programs, 1948-1975, diss. University Wisconsin-Madison, (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1978). Curtin, Michael. "Packaging Reality: The Influence of Fictional Forms on the Early Development of Television Documentary," Journalism Monographs (Austin, Texas), Feb 1993. ____________. Redeeming the Wasteland: Television Documentary and Cold War Politics. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995. Diamond, Edwin and Alan Mahony. "Once It Was 'Harvest of Shame'--Now We Get 'Scared Sexless,'" TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania) 27 Aug. 1988. Einstein, Daniel. Special Edition: A Guide to Network Television Documentary Series and Special News Reports, 1955-1979, (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1987). Hammond, Charles Montgomery, Jr. The Image Decade, (New York: Hastings House, 1981). Jacobs, Lewis. The Documentary Tradition. (New York: Hopkins and Blake, 1971). Leab, Daniel, J. "See It Now: A Legend Reassessed," in American History/American Television, Interpreting the Video Past, John E. O'Connor, ed. (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1983). Levin, Roy. Documentary Explorations, (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1971). Mascaro, Tom. Lowering the Voice of Reason: The Decline of Network Television Documentaries in the Reagan Years. (Ph.D. dissertation, Wayne State University, 1994). NBC News. The Invention of the Television Documentary: NBC News, 1950-1975. New York: The Company,1975. Rosteck, Thomas. "See It Now" Confronts McCarthyism: Television Documentary and the Politics of Representation. Tucaloosa, Alabama : University of Alabama Press, 1994. Swisher, Kara. "Discovery's Long, Hard Road," Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), 17 June 1991. Unger, Arthur. "Frontline's David Fanning: Upholding the Documentary Tradition," (Interview). Television Quarterly (New York), Summer 1991. Watson, Mary Ann. The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years, (NY: Oxford University Press, 1990; Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1994). ________________. "The Golden Age of the American Television Documentary," Television Quarterly (New York), 22.2, 1988. See also Black and White in Color; Civilisation; Death on the Rock; Drew, Robert; Eyes on the Prize; Eyewitness to History; The Fifth Estate; NBC Reports; NBC White Papers; Secondari, John; The Selling of the Pentagon; Sylvania Waters; The Valour and the Horror; This Hour Has Seven Days; A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy; The Uncounted Enemy; Vietnam: A Television History; World in Action