Documentary and Civic Culture: Now That Television Is the Primary Medium for Distributing Documentary, There Is Growing Debate about the Challenge of Engaging with Complex Social and Political Realities through Documentary Practice. (1)

By Williamson, Dugald | Metro Magazine, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Documentary and Civic Culture: Now That Television Is the Primary Medium for Distributing Documentary, There Is Growing Debate about the Challenge of Engaging with Complex Social and Political Realities through Documentary Practice. (1)


Williamson, Dugald, Metro Magazine


In making documentary available to large audiences, television has rung its own changes on the form. Hybrid types of popular programs, easily emulated and increasing in number, borrow documentary techniques less to explore (and thereby possibly influence) real-life contexts, than to reap their spectacle value. Or they make an exhibition of situations contrived for the program itself, as in 'reality' programs incorporating a game-show element of competition.

Whilst it might be argued that this hybridization has sparked new audience interest in documentary, many practitioners and commentators see it as having a negative effect. Russell Porter has claimed, ironically, that it means 'the documentary as a distinctive and readily identified species is in serious danger of extinction'. (2) On his account, documentaries that grapple with social problems, respond to diverse real-life experiences and test ideas and beliefs, are 'fading from fashion'. (3) Then there is the concern that the demand to find the most entertaining story angle, and conform to the limits of the standard hour or half-hour program, makes it difficult to treat subjects with the subtlety they deserve.

The problem is not just whether documentaries can entertain as well as inform audiences. It is also a question of how much 'elbow room' there is for well-researched and imaginatively crafted documentaries in the world of broadcasters' schedules and competitive production funding systems. (4) This article focuses on this problem by discussing the institutional contexts and production histories of some documentaries made for television in Australia that have grown out of wider cultural negotiations or had some distribution beyond this medium. But first, some general issues surrounding documentary form amid institutional changes should be outlined in more detail.

Documentary or documentary lite?

Let me call the combination of television factors alluded to so far--programming pressures, hybridization of genres and changing audience tastes--'documentary lite', and specify a little further the problem it poses for the so-called serious social documentary. Asking how television changes the prospects of documentary implies a historical perspective. The generic influences shaping the development of documentary on the small screen in Australia have been multiple. They include the practices of social observation associated with cinema verite that emerged in television in the USA in the 1960s. Other influences include journalistic forms that have become established in public and commercial broadcasting, overlapping with current affairs programming, and the academic and other professional collaborations through which relatively popular types of science, nature and history documentary programs have evolved.

The institutional bases for documentary developments in Australia relating to television have also been diverse. They have included broadcaster in-house production of documentary and related factual programming (admittedly varying significantly within and between particular organizations). Institutional government film production, notably at Film Australia, has been another changing source of documentary representations of social, political and economic life. From the 1970s, these representations came increasingly to reflect interactions with the television market. (5)

Since the late 1980s, the convergence between the institutional sector of state-based production and public broadcasting and the independent filmmaking community, has had a significant effect on documentary practice. (6) Independent filmmakers have gained greater access to production funding and potentially wider audiences than before, while government subsidization of production has become oriented primarily towards the distribution of works through television. This convergence has produced a new production dynamic--a force-field of creative aspirations, programming imperatives, methods of working, and cultural and industrial practices, which may or may not be in practical accord with each other in particular circumstances. …

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