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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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.
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
Martha Graham: The Dancer Revealed
Against the Odds: The Artists of the Harlem Renaissance
Secret File on J. Edgar Hoover
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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Death on the Rock; Drew,
on the Prize; Eyewitness
to History; The
Fifth Estate; NBC
White Papers; Secondari,
Selling of the Pentagon; Sylvania
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