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Re-looked TV documentaries fight back in reality driven world

Audrey Stuart | March 30, 2004

Walking with Cavemen
CANNES France — The recent spate of compelling, re-looked documentaries that are winning back big audiences to factual television, shows no sign of slowing up.

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 science.

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 to life".

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 Greensfelder.

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 took place.

There's no getting away from war however in the factual documentary world, which has been dominated for years by the subject.

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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