Network TV Audience Trends
2006 Annual Report
Public Television and the Documentary
In last year’s report, we discussed the unique role played by PBS’s “Frontline” program. With the new multi-story format of “Nightline,” Frontline stands even further apart from other network journalism offerings. With its focus on a single theme, “Frontline’s” documentary filmmaking approach and high production values attracted some 3 million viewers for each program during the 2004-2005 season.22
Heading into 2006, some observers speculated that the situation for journalistic documentaries might be improving. Certainly documentaries have found a new foothold in theaters and on DVDs. Films like “Supersize Me” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” broke through the perception that documentaries were stuffy, academic affairs. Oscar-nominated works like “The Boys of Baraka,” “March of the Penguins” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” illustrated the versatility of the genre.
While network television news divisions were moving away from documentaries, Public Broadcasting continued giving them an outlet. Along with “Frontline,” programs like “Wide Angle,” “POV” and “American Experience” offered viewers the opportunity to see current events, quite literally, through a new lens. “Wide Angle’s” “Border Jumpers” was an hour-long piece devoted to the subject of people attempting to illegally cross the national border of their wealthy neighbor in search of better jobs and opportunities. The countries in question, however, were not Mexico and the U.S. but Zimbabwe and Botswana . On “POV,” the filmmaker Ross McElwee’s “Bright Leaves” looked at the tobacco industry from an autobiographical perspective — his great-grandfather founded Bull Durham Tobacco. “American Experience” devoted a program to the September 1970 hijacking and eventual destruction of four commercial aircraft by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Some of those programs have had a decided liberal cast, but that is hardly the case exclusively. Perspective could become more of an issue, however, and add to pressures on PBS, if documentaries were found to play a significant role in future elections.
Meanwhile, cable channels like the History Channel, Discovery and others have always included documentaries in their programming, and some new players are moving high-profile projects to the airwaves. Showtime will be airing a new video version of the highly popular public radio show “This American Life.” Ted Koppel and members of the former “Nightline” team have moved their shop over to the Discovery Channel to start a documentary program on that network (See Economics, The Message of Nightline).