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Question of the week: what do you think of the state of TV documentaries?

Posted on May 25, 2011 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Bit of a blanket question this one, but let's look around at the state of the TV documentary, both in the UK and the US. How are you finding them? Informative? Useful? Cheaply made?

Now TV has obviously changed since Civilization could be bunged on BBC2 at primetime, back when David Attenborough was controller in 1969. So has society and the assumptions about what an audience would already know – and should know – in the 42 years since.

But even watching the History Channel (particularly the US one) and the Discovery Channel, I'm getting the increasing feeling that in an attempt to make documentaries more watchable or 'accessible', a lot of the time spent telling people new things has been replaced with telling people things they already knew while trying to entertain them with strange metaphors and whizzy graphics. Laudable aims in one sense, but I'm coming out of a lot of documentaries with the feeling that I haven't actually learnt anything, an hour of my time has been wasted and someone's got to go on some very nice holidays (Professor Brian Cox – I'm glaring at you here).

Now this rule isn't universal and you can normally rely on Bettany Hughes and certain other broadcasters to make sure there's a reasonable ratio between information and flash (although if you ever go and see a Bettany Hughes talk, ask her about how her producer on Helen of Troy forced her to try to recreate Bronze Age chariot races in Turkey, but neglected to book any horses, as an example of the influence of producers).

Certainly, Adam Curtis, whose BBC2 series of documentaries, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, has just started, can usually be guaranteed to tell you something you don't know while still entertaining enormously, although he veers more towards the polemic than true documentary.

But if you take something like Atlantis – an example of the baleful drama-documentary genre that also included the likes of Egypt – where there's a good basic documentary submerged under a drama that has little to no merits, you can see where it would be infinitely preferable just to watch a regular documentary like Bettany Hughes' The Minoans instead. Arguably, even the worst documentary will impart more information than an average docu-drama on the same subject.

But your mileage may vary. So this week's question is:

Are documentaries getting stupider? Is too much time being spent making things accessible than actually imparting useful information? And apart from a few notable exceptions, such as Shoot To Kill and Lifestory, are drama-documentaries a complete waste of space?

Answers below or on your own blog.

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