The docudrama is a fact-based representation of real events. It may represent contemporary social issues--the "facts-torn-from-today's-headlines" approach--or it may deal with older historical events. U.S. television examples include Brian's Song (1971), the biography of Brian Piccolo who played football for the Chicago Bears but died young from cancer, Roots (1977), the history of a slave and his family, Roe vs. Wade (1989), the history of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, Everybody's Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure (1989,) the rescue of an eighteen-month-old baby from a well, and three versions of the Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco affair (1993). The sources of the form derive from 19th- and 20th-century journalism, movies, and radio.

In most cases, a docudrama is produced in the manner of realist theater or film. Thus, events are portrayed by actors in front of an invisible "fourth wall"; shooting techniques obey the conventions of mainstream film or television (i.e., establishing shots with shot/reverse shots for dialogue, lighting constructed in a verisimilar manner, non-anachronistic mise-en-scene); no voice-over narrator comments on the actions once the events begin; and little or no documentary footage is interspersed. Unlike mainstream drama, however, the docudrama does make claims to provide a fairly accurate interpretation of real historical events. In other words, it is a non-fictional drama.

Thus, the docudrama is a mode of representation that, as its name reflects, combines categories usually perceived as separate: documentary and drama. This transgression, however, is not an actual one. Texts that claim to represent the real may be created out of various sorts of documents such as photographs, interviews, tape recordings of sounds, printed words, drawings, and narrators who attempt to explain what happened. Non-fictional texts may also use actors to re-enact history. In all cases, the real is being represented and is thus never equal to the reality it represents. Some people even point out that having any filmic recording of an event is a "text" with the same status as these other types of documents: film footage is necessarily taken from a particular angle and thus is an incomplete representation of an event.

The docudrama should be distinguished from fictional dramas which make use of reality as historical context but do not claim that the primary plot line is representing events that have actually occurred. An example of such a fictional use of history would be an episode in Murphy Brown in which Brown insists on questioning President Bush at a press conference and is then thrown out. The use of the real person Bush as backdrop to a fictional plot creates a "reality effect" for the fictional program but would not qualify the episode to be a docudrama.

Docudramas do not have to conform to the above aesthetic conventions. An early U.S. example of a series devoted to re-enacting past events is You Are There. You Are There derived from the radio program CBS Is There which ran from 1947 through 1950. On television it appeared from February 1953 through October 1957. You Are There violated the traditional taboo of avoiding anachronisms by having contemporary television reporters interview historical figures about the events in which they were supposed to have been participating, for example, during the conquest of Mexico.

The You Are There form for a docudrama, however, is very unusual. Most docudramas employ standard dramatic formulas from mainstream film and television and apply them wholesale to representing history. These conventions include a goal-oriented protagonist with clear motivations; a small number of central characters (two to three) with more stereotyping for secondary characters; causes that are generally ascribed to personal sources rather than structural ones (psychological traumas rather than institutional dynamics); a dramatic structure geared to the length of the program (a two-hour movie might have the normal "seven-act" structure of the made-for-television movie); and an intensification of emotional ploys.

The desire for emotional engagement by the viewers (a feature valuable for maintaining the audience through commercials) produces an inflection of the docudrama into several traditional genres. In particular, docudramas may appeal to affects of suspense, terror, or tears of happiness or sadness. These affects are generated by emplotments of generic formulas such as the detective or thriller genre, the horror genre. Although the outcome was known in advance, Every-body's Baby operates in the thriller mode: how will Baby Jessica be saved? Judicial dramas such as Roe vs. Wade or murder dramas such as Murder in Mississippi (the death of three civil rights' workers) use suspense as a central affective device. Examples of terror are docudramas of murders or attempted murders by family members or loved ones or of larger disasters such as the Chernobyl meltdown or plane crashes.

One of the most favored effects, however, is tears, produced through melodramatic structures. Some critics point out that docudramas tend to treat the "issue-of-the-week," and that such a concern for topical issues also produces an interest in social problems that might have melodramatic resolutions. Docudramas have treated incest, missing children, wife or child abuse, teenage suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction, adultery, AIDs-related deaths, eating disorders, and other "diseases-of-the week." The highly successful Brian's Song which won five Emmys and a Peabody is an excellent example of this subtype of docudrama. Its open sentimentality and use of male-buddy conventions along with the treatment of an interracial friendship uses the event of an early death by cancer to promote images of universal brotherhood. The Burning Bed (1984) or The Karen Carpenter Story (1989) wages war against pressures producing, respectively, domestic violence or anorexia nervosa.

Such implicitly or explicitly socially-conscious programs, however, raise the problem of interpretation. Indeed, docudramas, like other methods of representing reality, are subject to controversy regarding their offer of historical information through story-telling. Although historians now recognize how common it is to explain history through dramatic narratives, historians are still concerned about what effects particular types of dramatic narratives may have on viewers. Debates about docudramas (or related forms such as "reality TV") include several reservations.


Eleanor and Franklin: The White House

One reservation is related to "dramatic license." In order to create a drama that adheres to the conventions of mainstream story-telling (particularly a sensible chain of events, a clear motivation for character behavior, and a moral resolution), writers may claim they need to exercise what they call dramatic license--the creation of materials not established as historical fact or even the violation of known facts. Such distortions include created dialogues among characters, expressions of internal thoughts, meetings of people that never happened, events reduced to two or three days that actually occurred over weeks, and so forth. Critics point out that it is the conventions of mainstream drama that compel such violations of history while writers of docudramas counter that they never truly distort the historical record. Critics reply that the dramatic mode chosen already distorts history which cannot always be conveniently pushed into a linear chain of events or explained by individual human agency.

Another reservation connected to the first is the concern that spectators may be unable to distinguish between known facts and speculation. This argument does not propose that viewers are not sufficiently critical but that the docudrama may not adequately mark out distinctions between established facts and hypotheses, and, even if the docudrama does mark the differences, studies of human memory suggest that viewers may be unable to perceive the distinctions while viewing the program or remember the distinctions later.

A third reservation focuses on the tendency towards simplification. Critics point out that docudramas tend toward hagiography or demonization in order to compress the historical material into a brief drama. Additionally, complex social problems may be personalized so that complicated problems are "domesticated." Adding phone numbers to call to find help for a social problem may be good but may also suggest sufficient solutions to the social problem are already in place.

Outside the United States many of these problems have been addressed in different, but related ways, and while the term docudrama is often used in a generic fashion, it may be applied to a range of forms. In the United Kingdom, for example, Cathy Come Home (1966), stands as one of the earliest and strongest explorations of the problem of homelessness. Created by writer Jeremy Sandford, producer Tony Garnett, and director Ken Loach, this program refuses the more conventional structures of dramatic narrative, inserting strong "documentary" style photography into the presentation and using "Cathy's" own voice as narrator-analyst for the harsh social situation in which she finds herself. Another voice, however, presents factual information in the form of statistics and other information related to the central topic of the piece. Cathy Come Home has been described as a "documentary-drama," a term that a term that seeks to emphasise the serious and factual qualities of the show against the more conventional docudrama.

In Australia versions of docudrama have often been used to explore social and national history. Productions such as Anzacs, Gallipoli, and Cowra Outbreak have focused on Australian participation in both World Wars and in some views are crucial texts in the construction of national identity.

In Canada, critics have applied the docudrama designation to a broader range of production styles, including works such as The Valour and the Horror, which combined documentary exploration with dramatized sequences. This program led to an ongoing controversy over the nature of the "real," and the "true." Because the presentation challenged received notions of Canadian involvement in World War II (notions themselves constructed from various experiences, memories, and records), the conflict took on an especially public nature. So, too, did arguments surrounding The Boys of St. Vincent, which dealt with child molestation in a church-run orphanage. The dramatization in this case was more complete, but clearly paralleled a case that was still in court at the time of production and airing.

What all these examples suggest is, on the one hand, that docudrama is a particularly useful form for television, whether for advertising profit, the exploration of social issues, the construction of identity and history, or some combination of these ends. On the other hand, the varied examples point to an ongoing aspect of television's status as a medium that both constructs narratives specifically defined as "fiction" and also purports to somehow record or report "reality." You Are There very early mixed "news," history, and fiction, categories often, and uncritically, considered distinct and separate. The mixture, the blurred boundaries among the conventions linked to these forms of expression and communication, and the public discussions caused by those blurrings and mixings, remain central to any full understanding of the practices and the roles of television in contemporary society.

-Janet Staiger


Caughie, John. "Progressive Television and Documentary Drama. In, Bennett, Tony, et al., editors. Popular Film and Television. London: British Film Institute, 1981.

Goodwin, Andrew, et al. Drama-Documentary. London: British Film Institute, 1983.

O'Connor, John E. American History/American Television: Interpreting the Video Past. New York: Ungar, 1983.

Rapping, Elaine. The Movie of the Week: Private Stories, Public Events. Minneapolis, Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1992.


See also Cathy Come Home; Power Without Glory; Six Wives of Henry VIII; Valour and the Horror