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Network documentaries on the blink.


When I began covering the media for Newsweek last year, P.R. people for the networks, knowing a new man on the beat when they saw one, played a little game with me. I would ask how many hours of documentaries were scheduled for the season. They would give me complexlooking charts with categories like "public affairs programming' or "news programming' that always showed the numbers up from the year before. They knew that I knew the charts were phony; "public affairs programming' usually includes such things as magazine shows and latenight and early-morning news shows. But at least their little game showed the networks still cared about how they were perceived on the issue of documentaries. Now, only a year later, they barely even try to jiggle the figures. Why bother? It's perfectly obvious that the hour-long documentary form is close to death at the commercial networks. CBS, long the premier documentary maker, is scheduling only six to eight hours for next year, less than a third of what appeared in 1984. Many of the finest documentary producers chose to take early retirement during the network's recent turmoil. NBC has cut back its "White Papers,' and ABC, which for a while tried to close the respectability gap with CBS, has cut its staff and even banned the word "documentary' from news specials (too boring).

Unlike at PBS, the decline for documentaries at the networks does not have much to do with the role of government, though a little interest on the part of the FCC, which once encouraged such programming, might have helped slow the process. The change obviously has a lot to do with commercial pressures, not from sponsors but from the business divisions of the networks. Until recently, the business side provided special dispensation to the news divisions, partly as a matter of prestige and partly because combatants in the rating wars observed a cease fire when it came to documentaries. The willingness to judge documentaries by a less rigorous rating standard has eroded as network television's glory days of boundless revenues have faded into the past. After years of printing money, CBS, for instance, suffered losses last quarter for the first time ever. The "prestige' issue, however, is more interesting and generally less well understood. The real change may have as much to do with the internal culture of the networks as with economic issues. Today's news executives still care about what people think at cocktail parties and in the print press. But there seems to have been a change in the definition of what is required to meet minimum socially accepted standards of prestige.

In understanding how network culture has changed, it's important not to romanticize the "golden era' of documentaries. Some of the programs were boring, and most were comparatively unpopular with the public. Moreover, for all of Fred Friendly's complaints about how it's a good thing Edward R. Murrow didn't live to see "West 57th,' CBS's new yuppie magazine show, the fact remains that Murrow, the plaster saint of CBS, himself conducted a number of puffy celebrity interviews on "Person to Person.' Even the famed "See It Now' ran stories that would lead you to change the channel if they appeared nowadays on "60 Minutes.' Friendly, often described as "Fred Formerly' by CBS employees because he is so frequently identified as "former president of CBS News,' even though he resigned nearly 20 years ago, does not often mention that.

The only reason for emphasizing that point in the context of Murrow's and Friendly's often-brilliant documentaries, plus the fine work of Walter Cronkite and Bill Moyers (to use just CBS as an example), is to suggest that the documentary forum is not immutable. There are different ways to make television enlightening. The philistine analysis of what happened--that if it weren't for the bean counters we'd still have our documentaries--is too pat. It's true that news executives, at least at CBS, are suddenly ambitious to make it on the corporate side, whereas in years past, becoming president of the news division was the climax of a career and the end of the line. And this can severely harm the overall position of news in the company. But it doesn't address the issue of documentaries, because documentaries have been undermined not only from commercial pressures outside the news division but from within.

The difference between the pro- and anti-documentary people is often one merely of degree and tone. To use a political analogy, it's like the difference in the early 1960s between John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson. Don Hewitt, the creator of "60 Minutes' and a pivotal figure on this question, directed the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, which helped elect Kennedy. In this analogy, Hewitt is JFK. His thinking in 1968, when "60 Minutes' was created, was, "Let's do public affairs broadcasting, but in a quick, muscular, pragmatic, modern way.' The Stevensons of the networks preferred the old-time, liberal religion of hour-long documentaries. Why liberal? Because documentaries were by their nature an implicit challenge to the status quo on issues like farm migrants ("Harvest Of Shame') and national defense ("The Selling of the Pentagon') --a way of thinking that once helped define what liberalism meant. Whether shows were in fact liberal or not, they were perceived as such, which helps explain later conservative attacks on the networks.

To continue the political analogy, the Kennedys won. If you still believed passionately in hour-long documentaries in the face of the brilliant success of the news magazine format, you might have been a little too idealistic and soft-headed, a little too boring, a little too Adlai. Of course, some hour-long documentaries continued to be made, and some hard-headed producers made their requtations on them. But by the mid-70s, with "60 Minutes' accounting for nearly one-third of CBS, Inc.'s total profits and ABC's "20/20' a success, the battle was winding down. In the early 80s, the presence of so many stars in the milliondollar salary range raised the stakes further. The stars could not be profitably used on low-rated documentaries. And satellite technology and new fancy graphics changed the game even more. Before long, the question became not what should television and news do, but what could it do--technologically.

That is a partial explanation, not a justification. The truth is that there is no good reason why the networks can't have both news magazines and full-length documentaries. ABC's answer has been the three-hour documentary, which is too long for most viewers. It's as if the executives are thinking they'll get it all over at once, thus discharging their public responsibility. But at least that network is making a stab at it. The evening ABC devoted to public schools last year was perhaps the best documentary of the past three or four years. The other networks should have felt jealous. Figuring out how to do that--how to shame the networks into more civic responsibility--isn't going to be easy, particularly with no quiz show scandal or activist FCC to help out.

Maybe I'm the most naive media critic around, but I still cling to the belief that given a consistent time slot, the absence of which is a major problem for documentaries, the good stuff can be popular. Technology may have shortened attention spans, the economics of the business may have even become less forgiving, but the secret is the same as it was in Edward R. Murrow's day--controversy. Traditionally, the networks avoided controversy at all costs. Executives feared that the government, which was allowing the networks to get rich off of the public airways, might step in. But nowadays that will not happen--an advantage of the otherwise deleterious absence of government regulation. With the FCC inactive, and sole corporate sponsorship largely a thing of the past, the aversion to controversy no longer makes much sense. Its survival is a product of bureaucratic cautiousness. And it's a foolish cautiousness that costs the networks money. The dumbest thing about the much maligned "West 57th' is not that it is often fluffy; the network news divisions have had fluffy fare for years. The shame is that if it were tougher and better, "West 57th' would probably be more profitable. Packaged right, quality sells.

The proof lies in the very type of program that helped discredit the documentary in the first place. "60 Minutes'--a news program--is the most successful television show in the history of the medium. Its glory days were when it was tough--when you called your family into the room and said, "Watch Mike Wallace nail that guy.' Hewitt knows this. After a few years of mostly soft stories and slippage in the ratings, he's now moving back to harder-hitting stories, though without the ambush interviews and other objectionable techniques.

Hewitt likes people to believe that "60 Minutes' can't be duplicated, and ABC's failed attempts seem to bear him out. But just as news magazine shows modified the traditional documentary, some other form can modify the news magazine. In a way, it already has. ABC's commendable "Nightline' runs nearly neck-and-neck with the Johnny Carson show. And something similar could work in prime time. In television, the public affairs wheel can be constantly reinvented. The talent is there. All that's missing is the commitment.
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Copyright 1986, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Alter, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 1986
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