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Media: Not Made for TV

The PBS series P.O.V. proves that the documentary film is alive and well--and that mass-audience TV is sicker than ever.

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The feature-length nonfiction film had its beginnings in the 1930s, at the hands of such masters as Robert Flaherty, who directed Man of Aran, about the daily fight for survival of Irish fishermen. Later the documentary film was adopted, and then adapted, as a staple of network television. Lately, however, the documentary has become TV's orphaned child. Fewer such films are being shown on the Big Three networks, and fewer of those that are shown can be seen during prime time. We may infer programmers' priorities from the fact that, although they chose to telecast this year's Emmy ceremonies for soap-opera and game-show winners, they did not show those for the winning news and documentary programs.

The feature-length documentary is still being made, of course, even if TV's mass audience doesn't often get the chance to see them. In fact, says Marc Weiss, a filmmaker and producer in New York, in the 80s we've seen a flowering of the independently produced documentary. "A lot more documentaries have been playing in theaters than ever before," says Weiss. "The work being done today is better than ever--more creative, more engaging on an emotional level."

Weiss is executive producer of P.O.V., the ten-week series that showcased 12 independently produced documentary films on PBS stations last season. These were emphatically not made for TV. P.O.V. (film talk for "point of view") aired movies about brave Argentinean mothers, angry Brooklyn housewives, plucky senior citizens, and idealistic freedom fighters. Most had not been seen outside the circuit of college campuses and big-city art cinemas where such documentaries are usually shown. Critics saw them, however, even if no one else did; Best Boy won an Academy Award for its portrayal of a retarded man's steps toward independence, and Errol Morris's quirky 1981 film about pet cemeteries, Gates of Heaven, was judged by Roger Ebert to be one of that year's ten best movies.

"We had hopes that the series would find an audience," recalls Weiss. "I don't think you can say we had expectations." The series opener was a double bill. The first film was American Tongues, an essay on regional speech that demonstrated to stay-at-homes what any traveler knows--that the United States is a diverse nation divided by a common language. The second was Acting Our Age, in which the term "little old lady" was redefined through the energetic example of six women. That first show drew a goodly viewership, by PBS standards, in the 14 major markets sampled. Ratings varied over the next several weeks, hitting a peak with Rate It X, a survey of male sexism by Lucy Winer and Paula de Koenigsberg that showed once again that men, alas, will be boys. "That was the highest rated show of the series in seven markets, and in three or four cities was among the top 25 PBS programs for July," Weiss reports. "Proving once again that sex sells."

Chicago responded to P.O.V. with what might be described as polite interest. Most weeks the series (which played on Saturday nights) drew between 1.5 and 2 local ratings points, which means that as many as 60,000 households tuned in. Gates of Heaven pulled three points plus, a respectable number for public television. (A local evening news broadcast on a commercial network, by comparison, might pull a 15 "share" or more, meaning that 15 percent of all the sets in use at that hour were tuned to that station.) "We felt that the audience was pretty good, considering," says Bill Natale, director of publicity and promotion at WTTW. "Documentaries are a tough sell."

P.O.V. offers a chance to assess the state of documentary filmmaking--and on the evidence of the series, it is thriving. The films varied considerably in technical polish and scope as well as in subject matter, but none was uninteresting. Their very presence on PBS, however, posed some intriguing questions. The network functioned in this case like a museum, showing off to a wider audience works originally made for connoisseurs. The series thus told us something not only about documentaries but about television.

In 1960, Edward R. Murrow may have been able to pull a national 26 share for Harvest of Shame, his path-breaking expose about migrant farm workers, but ABC, CBS, and NBC no longer hold the national audience for such films captive. Millions of viewers have escaped to cable channels and PBS, where most of the migrant workers one sees are ants. The news documentary may once have ruled the old networks, but today it is the nature documentary that dominates our video pastures--Nature on PBS, the Audubon Society and National Geographic Society series on Ted Turner's WTBS, and virtually the entire schedule of the Discovery Channel, where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play nearly 24 hours a day. (Significantly, ABC a few months ago announced the creation of a new nature-film unit, headed by a longtime National Geographic Society producer, that will enable the network to poach some of cable's audience.)

Dismayed critics have suggested that the popularity of the nature film is proof that the TV audience has disengaged itself from such problems of our human jungle as homelessness. Perhaps. But the audience for the classic made-for-TV documentary--the instructional film, the expose, the civics lessons disguised as news was probably never very big. Murrow's See It Now, which today seems not just dated but silly, would be a hit again if viewers had only pap, like the game show Stop the Music, as an alternative.

The past always looks golden in the light of a setting sun. National naivete explains as much of Harvest of Shame's impact as does that show's effectiveness as journalism. Then as now, the best documentaries were good only by the medium's own lamentable standards. CBS's famous The Selling of the Pentagon (1968) could have been startling only to the millions who got their news from TV. That hasn't changed. In fact, the stories haven't changed; ABC ran The Selling of the Pentagon II in the form of its recent The Business of Defense, which untangled--yet again--the ties that bind the armed services, procurement officers, Congress, and corporate suppliers. The state of the genre is summed up by Walter Goodman's comments in the New York Times on ABC Closeup's August report on foster care: "Insistently earnest. . . . succumbs to supermarket-tabloid journalism. . . . lurid without being illuminating. . . . rings the emotions without adding to our understanding."

Critics have been slow to realize, however, that TV documentaries have always owed much of their audience to the lurid, that while Harvest of Shame might have worked as journalism without its aura of scandal and degradation, it never would have worked as television. Commercial-network programmers know better. The earnest, single-topic study, familiar from NBC's White Papers or CBS Reports, is being abandoned. In its place we have magazine-style video, what the Trib's Clifford Terry calls "pop documentaries." Edwin Diamond, the critic with New York University's News Study Group, dismissed as "antidocumentary" and "infotainment" such aberrations as Scared Sexless, NBC's report on sexually transmitted diseases. Nevertheless it drew an astonishing 30 percent of all TV sets in the U.S. turned on at that hour last December--the biggest audience for an NBC documentary since it undertook to examine UFOs 14 years ago. Its producers offered as authorities Alan Alda and Goldie Hawn. Whatever their other credentials, at least these two make sexual abstinence seem plausible.

Purists naturally decry celebrity cohosts' claim to Murrow's mantle. Says WTTW's Natale, "Those programs convey a mood about a subject, that's all." Blurring the lines between fact and fancy is not new; radio documentaries, for example, were largely dramatizations of actual events. But fictionalizing facts calls for fine distinctions and careful judgment. Without them, one ends up factualizing fiction. The result can be such inventions as the TV docudrama, the nonfiction novel, and the Reagan presidency.

"The commercial networks feel that the audience for traditional documentaries just isn't there," says Natale. "There is an audience, maybe as many as 8 million people nationally. But for the networks that's not enough." PBS programmers, on the other hand, are delighted to draw as many as 8 million viewers for a program. Partly for that reason, public television from its beginnings has been the natural home for the documentary. After all, the system's mandate was to educate, not entertain.

While the commercial networks modeled their news documentaries on the daily newspaper and sought to expose, public television borrowed from the classroom and sought to explain. And the stale scent of the lecture hall still lingers about the whole network. Weiss derides the classic PBS offering as "dull and didactic," words that could be applied without fear of libel action to such recent fare as First Things First, a film about literacy narrated by Phylicia Rashad. That pedagogic tradition is embodied by Bill Moyers, the Mister Rogers of public affairs.

In the opinion of many viewers, unfortunately, TV that is good for you does not make good TV. Back in 1971, Jim Lehrer (then the network's new national programming coordinator and a man who, as today's cohost of the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, has committed more dull TV than any man alive) admitted that the problem with PBS documentaries was getting anyone to watch them.

PBS documentaries, whether commissioned from independent filmmakers or produced in-house, are not as dull as they were in 1971. Awards judges like them, anyway; such PBS offerings as Eyes on the Prize and The Secret Government won 14 of the 33 Emmys awarded this year for such films. Frontline is a network staple; in fact, says Natale (sounding a bit like a New Yorker recommending his favorite deli), PBS is "about the only place where you can get a real documentary these days."

Alas, so few people seem to want real documentaries that PBS risks becoming "coterie TV," appealing only to an already-informed elite. Meanwhile the mass audience dwells in a darkness illuminated only by the dim light of the nightly news. One such critic is Yoko Ono; she told an interviewer that she opted to cooperate in the making of Imagine, a feature film on John Lennon's life, because the alternative was to make "a very artsy, specialized documentary . . . that would have ended up on public television."

So unsavory has the documentary become that people in broadcasting don't even like to use the word. P.O.V., for instance, was originally to be called The American Documentary, but that was changed after informal market surveys (basically, Weiss talking to people in airports) suggested that viewers wouldn't watch anything whose title included the "d" word. The Big Three networks have long since abandoned the term because (as Edwin Diamond and colleague Alan Mahony phrased it in TV Guide) it is "so redolent of . . . earnestly exhaustive journalism and traditional topics like migrant workers, hunger or race relations."

P.O.V.'s marketing efforts, therefore, were largely devoted to persuading people that their documentary series wasn't going to be too documentary. David M. Davis, who is the executive director of American Documentary, Inc., P.O.V.'s production company, promised the press in a videotaped promotional interview that the films would be "entertaining." He said the word with a sort of smirk, as if he were describing a wallflower who turned into a bawd once you got enough drinks into her.

The techniques by which one seduces an audience are still new to public-TV programmers, for whom dullness was once a badge of merit. (An early exception, and probably a pernicious one, was Sesame Street.) They are learning fast, however. Cutbacks in federal support for public broadcasting have made the system more than ever dependent on the cash contributions (and thus the whims) of its viewers. Thus the network increasingly finds itself in the position of a classroom teacher who's been told that the school board has handed over control of the curriculum to the students.

The system that was at first run for the public is now being run by the public, or at least that part of the public that tunes in regularly. That audience, these days, is middle-aged, ineluctably suburban in its aesthetic, and politely liberal in its politics. Given the choice, they would rather learn about pandas than teenage pregnancy. They have even made reruns of the Lawrence Welk Show a hit at some stations--proof of PBS's decline into what critic Tom Shales has called "doily television."

The shift toward viewer funding has had a predictable impact on programming. WTTW's behind-the-scenes peek at the production of a Family Ties episode (Alex falls in love) had "pledge week" written all over it. The station's commitment to foreign affairs is expressed not only by its one-episode contribution to a series on East European nations but by a new series of Frugal Gourmets. Jeff Smith will take his revival show on the road to preach on the cuisines of China, Greece, and Rome--an extravagant way for a chronically cash-short station to send for takeout.

It is hard these days to recall the time when PBS programs gave people real heartburn. The Nixon administration in particular threatened everything from budget cuts to FCC license actions in retaliation for what it perceived as public TV's liberal bias. J. Edgar Hoover was not a fan in those days (not enough cartoons, perhaps). And certain excitable representatives threatened to bring the wrath of Congress upon the network when it proposed showing a film about wartime devastations in Communist Vietnam.

Nixon attacked commercial broadcasters, too. But PBS was the weakest by far of all his media antagonists--it was small, vulnerable to federal budget setters, and ultimately subject to congressional mandates. Much of this broadcaster bashing was left to Clay Whitehead, then head of Nixon's White House Office of Telecommunications Policy and a man whose name, even today, makes hardened broadcast veterans reach for the Maalox. It was Whitehead who advanced the novel notion that, since public TV was legally bound to complement the commercial networks, and since the commercial networks aired documentaries of their own, PBS's production of its own documentaries violated its legislative mandate.

Reagan does not hate PBS the way Nixon did--it seems possible that he's never heard of it--but his eager lieutenants have not been shy about branding as ill-informed, even traitorous, documentaries that have criticized the administration's foreign adventures. In 1982, for example, William Bennett, then in charge of the National Endowment for the Humanities, described PBS's From the Ashes . . . Nicaragua, by Helena Soldberg Ladd, as "unabashed socialist-realism propaganda" (a slur similar to the one Bennett, as secretary of education, would later invoke against the NEA).

Alas, even hot air can have a chilling effect when it blows from high government officials. Even as early as 1973, the jurors of the annual Alfred I. DuPont/Columbia University Survey of Broadcast Journalism found it necessary to protest the dearth of what they called "courageous documentaries dealing with important subjects of controversy" on TV, adding that the decline in the number of documentaries on public TV was "especially disturbing."

It would be unfair to assert that PBS has been cowed by successive Republican White Houses; PBS officials have withstood such bullying better than their commercial counterparts. Even so, some knowledgeable critics charge that PBS documentaries have more and more been expected to conform to "professional" standards that require a craftsmanlike neutrality. Frederick Wiseman (PBS's star documentarian--the network has shown 20 of his films, including distinctive High School and, most recently, Missile) has been outspokenly critical of the critique-by-committee process by which independent films are selected for funding. He describes it as a guarantee of mediocre programming incapable of challenging the lowest common denominator of the marketplace.

New York Times TV critic John O'Connor made much the same complaint about P.O.V. He accused. Weiss and his colleagues of being "timid" and "moving cautiously" in their selection of films. It's a charge that found support in an unexpected quarter. "I think we were cautious," confesses Weiss, "partly because the history of independent films on public TV has been a rocky one." Weiss set up an editorial committee of a dozen members to screen the 550 entries submitted for consideration for P.O.V.'s first season. The group included the usual station and network representatives, but they may have been surprised to find themselves seated across the table from members who were actually filmmakers. Weiss's objective in selecting his panel was as much diplomatic as anything: they were there not only to choose films but to build bridges between factions grown skeptical of each other. Moreover each group had its function. Approval of the films by station types certified them as digestible by the rest of the PBS system. And the filmmakers acted as the network's conscience, reminding the other committee members that public TV in its founding legislation was charged to endorse "freedom, imagination, and initiative."

Freedom, imagination, and initiative don't always sit well with audiences used to Masterpiece Theatre, however. And local station managers these days worry less about the government taking offense than about viewers taking offense. Most stations played it safe by airing P.O.V. at night, often on weekends. (Recall that WTTW played it on Saturdays at 10:30 PM.) Most of the rudeness in P.O.V.'s lineup was political--Fire From the Mountain, for instance, is a Sandinista Andy Hardy story--but it was its occasional sex and uninhibited language that caused what fuss there was. Stations in Cincinnati and San Diego refused to air Rate It X (San Diego relented after local protests), and San Diego also shrank from exposing its viewers to the randy conversation of Harold "Louie Blueie" Armstrong, thus showing a sensitivity to foul language not usually associated with port cities.

Playing such films after prime time is canny programming; viewers have come to expect a looser rein at that time of day. But such scheduling does risk ghettoizing the frank and the controversial. WTTW's Natale insists that his station has no fear of such material, and that it does not cost them viewers. "Every program we put on that offends somebody makes us allies from another group," he says bravely. Still, it seems clear that competitive pressures would tend to push any station away from the fringes of opinion, format, and style toward a conventional center. The National Coalition of Independent Public Broadcasting Producers has complained that money that might have been used to underwrite the experimental or the rude is being used instead to pay for expensively upholstered soap operas and panda profiles that cater to middle-class, middlebrow viewers. Coalition spokesmen have given grudging endorsement to "acquisition series" such as P.O.V., which buy rights to films made for other markets, but lament that such series do not commission original works. Our public network, they suggest, is willing to loan the world's starving truth-tellers its soapbox, but not a dollar for a meal.

What offends and what does not is often not a simple problem. It is true that audiences often take the showing of a film, any film, as a tacit endorsement of its content. But the controversy about TV documentaries is seldom over subject matter per se. (Remember Reagan's colon?) Disputes revolve instead around sensibility, style, tone. The difference between NBC and PBS is not that one will talk about AIDS and the other won't. The difference is that PBS does it in a film such as P.O.V.'s Living With AIDS--a student film by Tina DiFeliciantonio whose simplicity reminds us of the difference between preaching and teaching--and NBC does it in Scared Sexless.

Filmmakers, broadcasters, and viewers often can't agree on exactly what a documentary is, or ought to be. It's generally agreed that a documentary must be factual. But what is a "fact" in the context of nonfiction filmmaking? Traditional TV documentarians borrow their definitions (and their topics) from print journalism, which sees facts as discrete entities independent of any interpretive context. Facts are, and any journalist who respects the sovereignty of "facts" can be praised as objective.

That old print ideal survives. Natale, for instance, says that any proposed WTTW documentary must be "balanced and fair," so that viewers can decide the case on its merits. "A documentary does just that," Natale explains. "It documents. Documentaries have such a news feel to them. It's like reading a newspaper for many people, and they believe whatever they read."

Journalists, however, know that "objectivity" can be little more than a stylistic convention that masks the most flagrant biases. An example is the TV debate that scrupulously presents "both sides" of an issue--when there may be half a dozen.

In any case, objectivity is hardly a requisite for all nonfiction filmmaking. That point arose in 1986 when San Francisco's KQED aired films on Israel and the Palestinians as part of its Flashpoint series. Flagship PBS stations, such as New Yorks WNET, refused to air the films on the grounds that they were biased--particularly a bitterly anti-Israeli look at life in the occupied territories.

KQED argued that it had not offered Flashpoint as conventional TV journalism but as what station reps called "free speech television." PBS defended the films in the same terms, arguing that public TV needed a format for the "unvarnished expression of partisan views" as an antidote to the varnished partisan views expressed by the commercial networks.

Contending notions of the documentary had clashed earlier that same season after PBS showed Guatemala: When the Mountains Tremble. The film's partisanship on behalf of that nation's left-wing guerrillas was so unvarnished that producers felt compelled to balance it with a panel discussion after the film when contrary views could be expressed. The film's codirector explained that she'd aimed to convey an emotional understanding of the topic through what she called her "highly lyric and stylized form of documentary"; John Corry, then a New York Times TV critic, derided such an approach as vanity.

The difference between traditional TV documentaries and the newer, looser work shown on P.O.V., in short, is not the difference between good journalism and bad journalism, but the difference between journalism and the personal essay. Weiss, for example, goes to considerable lengths to explain that the films shown on P.O.V. are not documentaries in the familiar sense. "We continually try to draw distinctions between TV journalism and this series," he says. Each film opened with the filmmaker explaining how and why the film was made. "There's a human behind each film," says Weiss, making the point that in these cases the bias is personal rather than institutional. "It's not CBS Reports."

Weiss has already invited submissions for P.O.V.'s next season. He expects no shortage of choices, although he adds, "Sometimes I wonder, how do independent filmmakers keep making these things?" Some grant funding is available, but most of the films submitted for P.O.V.'s first season were paid for in other ways. Weiss mentions the funding of The Times of Harvey Milk as typical--"$10, $20, $100 checks and a lot of deferred salary." Each film chosen for P.O.V. earns roughly $18,000 in broadcast-rights fees. "It's not enough," Weiss concedes, "but it's a start in the right direction. Basically the filmmakers are subsidizing public television."

So the films will be there, but will the audience? The first season's numbers were respectable, but Weiss wants to do better next time. He believes that the series should appeal especially to those who are alienated by much of what they see on TV these days. Those people need to be lured back to their sets, and Weiss is counting on their friends, the ones who saw P.O.V.'s debut season, to do it. "The next series," Weiss says, "will depend on an activist audience to succeed.

"Millions of people saw every one of these shows," he says. "Not as many as saw Bill Cosby or Dallas or Moonlighting, but so what? That's not the point. I'd rather have an audience of five million who are really engaged than an audience of 40 million who forget it ten minutes after they turn off their sets."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David K. Nelson.

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