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

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.

  • Mark Carroll

    I’m still watching The Great War from the 1960s. It’s striking that it requires actually properly paying attention. With modern documentaries I can more normally just half-watch them because there is plenty of repeating and fluff and not much actually new interesting information. (And I’m watching a bears-in-Alaska one now where the guy reminds us of the Mighty Boosh’s Howard Moon, which is distracting.) Some recent British ones seem to have tried to build up interesting puzzles in the first half which they save the answers to for the second half and I’d rather have them make the thing a third shorter and omitted the artificial build-up. What the discovery process was like emotionally for the scientists or whatever, I don’t much care to have recreated for me.
    I remain impressed by PBS’ NOVA series. Horizon is getting back to that quality after a bit of a low point, but isn’t there yet. PBS sell individual episodes on DVD for absurdly high prices but also stream stuff for free online. Of course, a fair few documentaries here in the US are actually re-narrated edited versions of ones originally shown in Britain.

  • I love a good documentary, and though I ‘enjoyed’ watching Curtis on Monday, his work does make me rather ambivalent. It’s great editing, and as you listen/watch the thing it appears very convincing: it’s only if you sit and think about what he’s saying that it can unravel rather a lot. That pace, that style, as much as it’s apparantly FULL of content, actually might be a bit less fulfilling than we give credit for. Dumbed down? Perhaps.
    Recently, I’ve loved Lucy Worsley’s “If Walls Could Talk” which was GREAT fun (though I wish I was her, lisp and all) though it was probably only confirming a lot of what I knew. Nevertheless, there were some scenes and facts that I hadn’t previously picked up and it was really engagingly presented. Additionally, some of the other quirky BBC4 documentaries are pretty enjoyable — all those on ones on caravanning, cycling, the electricity grid etc. I’ve certainly found out some stuff from those I never knew before and I watch a lot of documentaries for fun (those BFI boxsets?: all in our house).
    So are documentaries getting more stupid? I’m not sure, and I’m pretty convinced that your readership is probably NOT in the best position to judge: we’re all a bit too experienced (note I didn’t say ‘old’). We’ve watched a lot of documentaries; most of us have had at least some level of education that made us reasonably informed about the world, and history and science; we’re all pretty inquisitive and curious people so we’ve read and watched and found out a lot already.
    I’m not saying we’re BEYOND being informed by new documentaries, and clearly we’re not all equally well-informed about everything. But we are probably at the point where (given what gets covered in TV documentaries, and what we may watch) we’re probably only incrementally adding to our sum of knowledge.
    And docu-dramas? Hmmm, rarely satisfying unless you treat them as DRAMAS tyhat just happen to have a more explicit basis in (certain) facts.

  • SK

    I saw a nice comment on Twitter: ‘This is like that time we got Adam Curtis to edit our wedding video, and it turned out we were responsible for 9/11’.
    Anyway… I feel unqualified to comment, because I’ve never seen the point of (informative) documentaries: I find it much easier to absorb information in written form, where I can skip back and re-read bits if I need to, and so on (yes, there’s the rewind button, but it’s more hassle to find the right place).
    (I can see the point of polemic documentaries, like Michael Moore’s or Adam Curtis’s, where the intent isn’t to entertain but to use the medium to make a case; but whether I actually want to watch them or not is a different matter.)
    So the main thing that for me would give a documentary any point is being able to see things: so I watched A History of Celtic Britain mainly to see the artefacts. And I didn’t intend to watch it, but when channel-hopping I came across the BBC3 thing on fashion brands and kept viewing as it was interesting to see inside the factories. And Louis Theroux is often interesting, again as you get to see the actual people saying their actual words.
    A documentary on a subject without real visuals — so some abstract thing about physics where they have to computer-generate the visuals (or worse, a history programme where they do recreations (or absolute worst, where they do CGI) instead of showing the real thing) I don’t see the point of at all. Surely you’d be better off reading a book.
    Also, isn’t Brian Cox’s voice really really really really really annoying?

  • Mark Carroll

    “we’re all a bit too experienced (note I didn’t say ‘old’). We’ve watched a lot of documentaries; most of us have had at least some level of education…” — You remind me, I’ve no idea what they’re like these days, but years ago I did love the early-morning Open University lectures, they were great mini-documentaries. I do hope that they still exist as such.

  • SK

    Broadcast OU lectures no longer exist. OU students now get their programmes on either video or DVD; the OU does general educational co-productions with the BBC for prime-time (Bang goes the Theory, Coast etc; see ).

  • Sad, isn’t it? I used to love them – missed epic amounts of Saturday Superstore and Tiswas a as a result. I still have fond memories of non-Euclidean geometry being taught on a hillside while they played Brian Eno’s Ambient Music For Airports over the top.