It almost seems too good to believe.
The grip trashy reality shows hold on television may be about to be broken by a new wave of intelligent documentaries, according to some of the biggest names in the business.
Cable channels such as HBO which revolutionised TV series with such high-quality hits as “The Sopranos” are now doing the same for documentaries, with online platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Maker Studios even keener to tap into the hunger for smarter, more ambitious non-fiction stories.
Morgan Spurlock, best known for his junk food odyssey “Supersize Me”, said the backlash against junk reality TV is growing into an unstoppable “tsunami”.
“The onslaught of low-brow, low-rent, low-bar programming” has had its day, he told the MIPDOC festival in Cannes, France, this week — part of the world’s biggest TV market.
Boosted by the success of such engrossing documentary series as HBO’s “The Jinx”, which investigated the dark secrets of the American millionaire Robert Durst, he said there had been a huge change in thinking.
– Net is raising the bar –
“It is as cheap to make really good compelling content now… as some trashy reality show that makes you want to shoot your TV,” Spurlock added, with online platforms helping to raise the bar on quality.
“It’s brain over brawn,” he claimed.
“We have got the most educated generation in the history of the planet… and they have been neglected.”
The millennial generation “is no longer watching TV”, Spurlock said, with 70 percent of them in the US doing their viewing online, where they can pick and choose programmes that don’t insult their intelligence.
He said Netflix’s “Making of a Murderer” gripped America with its story — shot over ten years — of a prisoner’s fight to clear his name only to be arrested for murder shortly after he was released.
Spurlock, who made “Connected”, the first documentary series for Internet provider AOL last year, said “more people are watching intelligent documentaries than ever before.
“All of the networks across the board now are betting on smarter shows and that will be huge as those franchises go out around the globe. There is a tsunami coming.”
– Thirst for quality –
Amazon Studios, the film-making arm of the retailer, is one of the online leaders of the push to go more high-brow.
It brought in acclaimed documentary maker Alex Gibney (“Going Clear”) to produce short high-end films for its half-hour series “The New Yorker Presents”, which draws on the articles and the personality of the venerable magazine, including its famously wry cartoons.
The link-up with the magazine allows it to make documentaries for its Amazon Prime customers from stories in the New Yorker’s archives, including reports on US prison business and asking whether the September 11 attacks could have been stopped.
Big-name directors Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) and Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) are among those who have already shot segments for the series.
Amazon’s Joe Lewis said their Emmy-winning “Transparent” about a transgender father coming out and the classical music drama series “Mozart and the Jungle”, had shown that there was a thirst for “work with high artistic integrity that is trying to get into different worlds which have not been seen before”.
Lewis, whose studio is also backing Woody Allen’s new film, “Cafe Society”, which will be premiered at the Cannes film festival next month, said with viewing online “there is not as much flipping and (channel) surfing as there was before with TV.”
People are looking for something specific, “a destination”, he told another gathering at the festival which ends Thursday. “The New Yorker is a style of writing, it is a particular kind of story and technology allow brands to transcends mediums.”
But many of the new wave of documentaries are also far more cinematic than their predecessors.
“It is really striking how documentary series we are seeing now draw on fiction techniques in their storytelling,” Nathalie Darrigrand, executive director of the France 5 channel told AFP.
“You can see it particularly in the cliffhangers at the end of episodes and the way characters are presented,” she said.
For Spurlock there is one major lesson to be learned. “US TV lived for decades by (the showman) T P Barnum’s famous maxim, ‘No one ever got rich underestimating the intelligence of the American people.’
“That is no longer the case as far as non-fiction television is concerned,” he insisted.