Under Microscope

It's another world under the microscope.

What Happened to Documentaries?

There are many different genres of new media. When it comes to video, television and movies take up the majority of what we watch. There are, however, a few other formats that do not necessarily fall under these categories. Documentaries could be considered television series if they have multiple episodes, and films if they are one to two hours long. Regardless of their length and presentation format they are quite distinct. The most obvious distinction is that they are not fiction or at least they are not supposed to be. Another distiction is the fact that they are expected to be based on some research. Otherwise, where would the “document” part of the documentaries be?
Documentaries are relatively more difficult to consume. They require some patience and interest in something that might not be fun. They may be more informing than entertaining, and this should be understandable.
With the emergence of the internet and particularly the electronics revolution, the creator class for new media has transformed. The creator class is a much larger group now. Just like any large group, the quality of their work is not comparable to the much smaller elite group they replaced. This is besides the fact that they have better equipment and research capabilities. What is the reason behind this declining quality and what do I mean by declining quality?
Documentaries used to include a great deal of script that took months to draft. The information was carefully edited and condensed so that the audience could learn about the subject as much as possible in an hour. The script of a documentary was not as dense as maybe a book, but it could easily become a book chapter. Not only relevant facts and data were presented but also their analysis by an expert was commonly expected. A few conflicting points and perspectives were always included through intense interviews with difficult questions. One could write down what they learned from the documentary and use it to make a presentation or author a short essay.
In stark contrast to this, the modern documentary includes almost no script, no facts, no data, hardly any narrative. Most of the running time is spent showing clips that can be found in stock footage. If there are any interviews, it is almost customary to not even include the questions asked. There is no attempt to put the interviews into an overarching context. This is regarded as objective journalism since the producers of the documentary add nothing to the content. Obviously, it is impossible to create a purely objective documentary since even editing or selecting what to film can be considered intervention.
The real reason behind this new type of documentary is more financial and capitalistic than anything else. Streaming services want to add as much content as possible at the cheapest price possible. They know that they cannot charge more for better quality content anymore since the audience that would appreciate such an improvement is marginal. They want the audience to feel smarter about an issue but not get bored. The new documentary format is easier to watch because it is mostly, as it was iterated above, cinematographic footage and lightweight interviews. This format is much cheaper to film, requires much less research and writing. The distinction between professional and amateur level filming equipment has almost vanished. The door is open for nonprofessionals to film documentaries. These new documentaries may cost as little as ten percent of their old professional, factual, tailored, and perfected counterparts. It goes without saying that this new format is adored by the streaming services.
I do not believe the change in the audience is the driving force behind this new format. The behavior of the audience is dictated by the media itself. The transformation of the new media could be an inadvertent result of the technological revolution, but it is time we started looking for a way of improving it. Technological improvements cannot be an excuse for intellectual bankruptcy. After all, video is the most commonly consumed media format of the day.