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The Best of Both Worlds: How Big Can Documentary Get?

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Documentaries have gone mainstream. While not ready for primetime -- or, in many ways, way beyond primetime -- the offspring of documentary programming has gripped audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. But what may be most interesting in terms of documentary topics is how the genre has influenced non-documentaries.

The question today, for documentary filmmakers, and those interested in "documentary topics," is: How big can -- and should -- documentary get?

We're in an interesting place here today -- an intersection, or place of hybrids. And that's an exciting place to be.

Think of something like The Apprentice, Kitchen Nightmares, or Top Gear. All have taken elements from ways of making programs that are more typical of the documentary world and have parlayed them into huge shows.

American television has come a long way in embracing the culture of intersection. These days some of its most prized shows are hybrids.

Look at The Wire, created by an ex-police reporter rather than a traditional Hollywood writer. Or 24. Or Glee. Or even the granddaddy of them all, American Idol -- part talent show, part engine of the American music industry.

Right now a lot of people in America are watching with interest two shows from British producers -- both really great examples of that "intersection engine room."

There's Undercover Boss, from Stephen Lambert (the creator of Wife Swap) at Studio Lambert, currently the number one show in America, smashing everything before it on Sunday nights on CBS.

Years earlier, he was also the executive producer of Adam Curtis's careful and clever series the Century of the Self. He's currently making a scarily innovative documentary series for Channel Four called Notting Hill, which will be turned around in a single week.

And there's Who Do You Think You Are?, which has just been renewed by NBC. Made by my old pals at Wall to Wall, which won an Oscar for Man on A Wire -- (full disclosure: 20 years ago I helped start Wall to Wall and I commissioned WDYTYA on BBC2.)

Neither Undercover Boss nor Who Do You Think You Are? are subjects that seemed obvious for America networks where the dominant mainstream territories are still relationships and crime. A business show, straight after the Superbowl, which is where it played on the first night? Really? Genealogy, or really history of any kind, on NBC? Are you sure?

This intersection between the two worlds is where history hopes America Story of Us will play too, which I've spent the last year producing with my colleagues at History and Nutopia.

On one side it involved conversations with hundreds of academics and detailed discussions with our two Pulitzer Prize winning historians.

The goal was to create a national conversation about the values of a nation, how it came to be and where it is going. Pretty complex stuff.

But just when I felt like I was back as at school a whole bunch of elements from the other side became impossible to resist. As my team from Nutopia began discussing the series with History, in particular with our fellow executive producers, including President and General Manager of History Nancy Dubuc, SVP, Production and Development David McKillop, and Julian Hobbs, we began to ask different questions.

  • What if we could use CGI techniques usually used for fantasy futures to recreate the past as it happened?
  • So we could fly across Manhattan and see the skyline shrink back into the countryside that used to be there?
  • See the oil derricks rise across Texas?
  • Create a dust bowl twister?
  • See a civil war bullet smash into a Union solider in slow mo?
  • Get a chorus of notable Americas like Colin Powell, Michael Douglas, Meryl Streep, John Lasseter and P. Diddy to kick start that national conversation?

As a transplanted Brit, albeit one who has become very immersed in America, I just love the way American TV takes miniatures and turns them into vast Sunset Strip boards.

And it's those boards that everyone really wants.

My experience of running channels is there is no shortage of delightful miniatures. At BBC2 and Discovery and at all cable channels I've consulted at, it's the big astounding ideas that are in short supply.

You hardly ever hear those kinds of pitches, but when you do they make your day.

It's like that old story that it's actually easier to borrow 100 million dollars from a bank than 100 dollars.

In TV it's true.

When I was at the BBC I regularly got into trouble with the press because of being too "ratings obsessed." Try explaining that to an American television network boss.

But the idea that in Britain you get marks from your peer group for innovation as well as ratings is a really important one. It's enshrined in the heart of British television culture.

And part of the reason that its culture has excelled is due to the extraordinary nature of British television. Two of the biggest broadcasters have a need to innovate written into their reasons for existing.

It's created audiences who really applaud the new and are very harsh on copycats -- as I've found out on my own on several occasions.

As an expat I can stand here and say to whoever gets to run Britain in a few weeks time -- don't mess British TV up by shrinking the BBC too far or trying to make Channel Four behave. British TV culture and the hybrids it nurtures are a special, special thing -- which you learn to appreciate when you're away.

How big should documentary get?

My answer is as big as it possibly can.

I'll let others judge the success of America The Story of Us, which will premiere on History on April 25th.

My pitch these days is that filmmakers, especially those raised in the documentary form and in journalism, should take on huge territories. Create new hybrids.

There's loads of ways to do it -- with formats that grow out of documentaries like Undercover Boss.

With performance and comedy embraced back into documentary in Sky in the UK's Pineapple Dance Studios (watch it on You Tube). Or doc soaps meet Antiques Road Show in History channel's breakout hit Pawn Stars.

With Its new technology that gives you Life and Planet Earth and of course America Story of Us.

With CGI and animation.

There are a ton of new hybrids no one has even contemplated out there ready to be created.

But whatever it is don't be afraid to make it big, the rest of television culture needs you to do it.