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TV Documentary

The Documentary is one of the greatest sources of original programming in the TV schedule. Typically 30 or more are shown each week on the four terrestrial channels, mostly made by Independent Production companies . Documentary is arguably televisions greatest achievement fulfilling the Educate and Inform part of the original Public Service brief, and it is the Public Service channels which are responsible for broadcasting most of them . Documentaries are commissioned by a tiny elite of commissioning editors who largely act as patrons to a larger elite passionate independendent producers( usually Oxbridge educated.)

The term Documentary was first used by the British film maker John Grierson in 1926 to describe a new kind of short film that he and his film unit at The GPO were making for the cinema. Griersons films resembled neither the Pathe Newsreels of the time , nor the tedious Public Information films ( satirised quite accurately by Harry Enfields Mr Cholmondely-Warner) The closest approximation he could find were the French Documentaire which were travelogues. Cinema Documentary/Non Fiction films were very common in the early days of film ( The first public exhibitions of films by the Lumiere brothers were such films) but Cinema soon moved away from short one & two reelers became dominated by the three reeler Feature Film. Travel films did however remain popular parts of the movie-going experience with such films as Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty. In Britain the kind of films produced by Grierson were a major influence on early TV documentary style. Radio The other influence on British TV documentary was BBC Radio documentary which, partly due to the unobtrusive nature of sound recording equipment, developed a style involved apparently overheard witnessing of real events unlike the stiff, overrehearsed style of the cinema. Cinema Verite In the 1950s & 60s French political film makers used the new light weight cameras and sound equipment to pursue truth, artistic and social. The use of hand held cameras, natural lighting and sound, unrehearsed and unscripted action and real locations influenced both documentary and drama.

Types of TV Documentaries
Not all documentary makers come from the same place at great risk of over simplification, 5 positions can be identified.

Journalism Current Affairs/Investigative Human Interest Advocacy Education Ethnography Artistic/Aesthetic

(Topicality is ensured by careful press manipulation) Tabloid TV or Edinfotainment Commited/ Political (Science & Natural History mostly) An Old tradition continually renewed (see Beyond the Clouds) Self Conscious exploration of the nature of reality

a. b.

Documentaries are not all commissioned on the same basis, there are:

Singles Series

Occasional one-off documentaries Continuing , such as Equinox Long, such as Life on Earth Short (typically 4-6) such as Cutting Edge such as Open Door such as one foot in the past such as the Sunday night Nature slot such as Dyke TV

Strands Access Magazines Slots Special Series

The 3 Stages of Documentary


The Topic is chosen, decisions are made about how to depict/treat the subject, material is selected, typicality is established, research is done, contacts are made. This can be summed up as establishing a: Strategy of Representation.

Direction, rehearsal, management , The Aesthetics of Representation

Judgments made on strength of material and the final shape and direction of the documentary, Selection & Sequencing

Elements of TV Documentary
The enabling fiction of documentary is The belief in the event that might have been, without this the images serve only as illustrations for an obviously preconstructed argument, The difficulty for the documentary maker is that the more exposition is used to make the images coherent, the less the images are believed.Conversely the less the exposition, the more likely the image is to be incoherent

On whose terms? How are speakers speech used? Are they sliced up to illustrate & support arguments? to discredit their authority by juxtaposition/ change of context? How much is the Interviewer foregrounded or concealed?

Drama-docs use documentary style research but add dramatic reconstruction Docudramas use the conventions of the documentary to make drama more believable. In one sense all documentaries are fictions because they use narrative techniques to tell a coherent story.

Mise en Scene
Documentary makers search for fresh and unfamiliar subjects or views, sometimes to the cost of the subject.

Strong evidence and weak exposition or Voice of God & Illustration. Rhetorical form, Categorical form as alternative narrative forms. Hermeneutic codes of gradual revelation