Re-looked TV documentaries fight back in reality driven world
Audrey Stuart | March 30, 2004
CANNES France — The recent spate of compelling, re-looked documentaries that are
winning back big audiences to factual television, shows no sign of
Walking with Cavemen
The mass appeal of last year's BBC Pompeii blockbuster series
and the huge success of its Walking with Cavemen co-productions
with the giant cable network Discovery have opened the door to a
surge in similar, big budget series about ancient civilisations and
The result was a bigger than usual crowd of buyers for the more
than 1,000 documentaries on offer at the international MIPDOC TV
marketplace this weekend.
Industry executives at MIPDOC said the genre was fighting back
in today's reality-driven TV world thanks to the injection of
drama, gripping stories and powerful computer graphics.
"Computer-aided imaging has made ancient history and science
really successful," Discovery Channel's Abigail Greensfelder told
AFP in an interview.
The latest computerised animation technology had breathed life
back into documentaries by making it possible for producers to
recreate the past and, for example, bring the city of Pompeii "back
A strong story line is another key to success, industry
specialists underlined. The best documentaries currently are
"story-driven with strong characters," emphasised Discovery's
Flashing out and developing the characters that star in today's
documentaries is also turning out programmes that are becoming
increasingly theatrical. "We saw it with Bowling for Columbine
and this is resulting in more theatrical documentaries being made,"
Canadian CBC Television's Mark Starowicz told a MIPDOC forum here.
The emphasis on character development in the current new breed
of documentaries is, curiously, a by-product of the television
reality shows that continue to dominate today's television ratings.
"Now there are different types of documentaries emerging where
the characters are played out much more than before. Reality (TV)
is transforming documentaries," Greensfelder said.
As well as being on the look out for the next potential
blockbuster, industry execs here in Cannes are also snapping up the
less sensational, "bread-and-butter" programmes they need to fill
the ever-expanding hours of broadcasts.
Going by what is on offer here, viewers keen on expanding their
knowledge of ancient civilisations will have quite a lot to look
forward to with Discovery's upcoming series about Ramses, the
Egyptian pharaoh who expelled Moses.
But the accent is switching in general from history to science
and, in some cases, to the future.
US big-hitter Fox Television Studios is in Cannes promoting its
big-budget Alien Encounter documentary, in which the studio
promises to explore "the science of aliens".
Aliens too will take the leading role in one of the Discovery
channels' big forthcoming series for next year, entitled Alien
Planet. Discovery is working with space experts NASA and
biologists to take a look at what life might look like on other
solar systems. Given the latest findings emerging from current Mars
space probe, this series could prove extremely timely.
Space travel is the subject of another programme currently being
promoted, The Truth About The Moon Landings. Co-produced by
Britain's Channel 5 and Discovery Canada, this new offering
attempts to refute the claim that the moon landings never actually
There's no getting away from war however in the factual
documentary world, which has been dominated for years by the
One of the newest programmes to be aired this year is Bombing
the Germans, which will be the first war documentary that a German
broadcaster (NDR) has produced for a British channel (Channel 4).
Another new war programme in the blocks is the BBC's Dunkirk,
which the producers claim combines documentary and drama techniques
in a new and innovative way to tell the story about the evacuation
of allied forces from Europe in 1940 with unprecedented scale.
This new wave of dramatic documentaries is blurring the lines
between what is factual television and what is drama. But when a
documentary series such as BBC 1's Pompeii: The Last Days manages
to break through the 10 million-viewer mark, the networks do not
really care about the distinction. – Sapa-AFP
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