A Nieman Year Spent Pondering Storytelling: `TV Documentaries Were Dull Because They Misused the Medium.' (Moving Pictures: Television and Film)

By Drew, Robert | Nieman Reports, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

A Nieman Year Spent Pondering Storytelling: `TV Documentaries Were Dull Because They Misused the Medium.' (Moving Pictures: Television and Film)


Drew, Robert, Nieman Reports


In the early 1950's, with television in its infancy, the ability to capture real-life moments as they happen and use those images to tell a story was little more than an idea of what the documentary approach on this new medium might become. I'd spent 10 years at Life as a correspondent and editor and experienced firsthand the powerful force that candid photography of real life can produce. And from my work on a magazine show for NBC, I knew that improving photography, writing and editing would not make the difference in creating this kind of effect on television.

What had to evolve was an editorial approach that valued reality captured with the intimacy of the still camera and the technology to allow this to happen in motion pictures. But once that happened--and we knew it would--those of us wanting to pursue this new type of reporting would need to know how to transform these sounds and images into documentary television.

During my Nieman year in 1955, I focused on two questions: Why are documentaries so dull? What would it take for them to become gripping and exciting? Looking for answers, several Harvard mentors steered me towards an exploration of basic storytelling. So I studied the short story, modern stage play and novel, and watched how some of these forms came across on TV.

By the time I felt I knew the answer, I was embarrassed at how long it had taken me to realize it. What I finally saw was that most documentaries were audio lectures illustrated with pictures. I watched Edward R. Murrow's "See It Now," but did so without sound, simply watching the picture. Its progression disintegrated. Then I turned the picture off and listened to the sound; the program tracked perfectly. Later, these TV programs were printed in book form and read very well.

The storytelling problem was beginning to sort itself out for me. Stories could be told in different ways, using different means of communication, but each medium had its unique strength for doing this. And its unique strength was, not surprisingly, its best. TV documentaries were dull because they misused the medium. The kind of logic that builds interest and feeling on television is dramatic logic. Viewers become invested in the characters, and they watch as things happen and characters react and develop. As the power of the drama builds, viewers respond emotionally as well as intellectually.

It was also becoming clearer to me that journalism is not relegated to one medium or another. It is a task to be combined with the means to communicate that which is discovered. And in TV the nightly news, for example, is one "medium," doing what it does best, which is to summarize the news, often by lecturing with picture illustrations.

The prime-time documentary ought to be different. What it adds to the journalistic spectrum is the ability to let viewers experience the sense of being somewhere else, drawing them into dramatic developments in the lives of people caught up in stories of importance.

As my Nieman year progressed, my mission was becoming clear: convey experience. …

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