Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand – image courtesy Wiki Commons

Why Most Documentaries Are Pretty Unwatchable

Posted March 24, 2023
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OK, let’s be honest.

Most documentaries, and in fact, most non-fiction factual content (and here I am excluding reality TV shows) are pretty unwatchable.

Yes, the content is both intelligent and ‘important’, but when the Academy Awards roll around, no one watching at home is arguing over which documentary is going to win.

And, I think it’s a fair bet, that aside from the judges at the Oscars, almost on one will have watched them either.

That’s because, let us be brutally honest here – they are all pretty much unwatchable – at least unless you a) have a personal interest in the subject or b) you are personally related to the person who made it. 

Other than that, it’s time to change the channel or go in the kitchen for something to eat.

This point was driven home to me last night as we sat at home and watched, or tried to watch, Simon Schama’s History of Now series on BBC2.

Now look, I love Simon Schama’s work. I have read most of his books. He is incredibly smart and has vast oceans of knowledge to impart, which he does in a masterful way in all his writing, But as we always say at the Bootcamps, writing has nothing to do with television, and last night’s offering was stark proof of that. 

The episode was a fascinating comparison of two world views portrayed by Ayn Rand, right wing doyen and author of books such as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead (among many others) and Charlie Chaplin with a more, shall we say, humanitarian point of view. The content and the concept were very interesting – but the way it was turned into television did not work. You have to want to watch it to keep watching it.

As television, and more largely, video are now the lingua franca of our society (the average person spends 8 hours a day watching TV, film and video and a scant 19 minutes a day reading); the medium has to be able to convey important content on screen – but it largely does not. 

This was made clear to us last night when we finally switched from Schama on BBC2 to ITV, which was running yet another re-run of Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first Bond film. Now, we have probably seen Casino Royale at least once if not twice before, be we were tired and let it go. Even though we came in in the middle of the movie and knew what was coming, it immediately grabbed our attention and drew us in. 

What was it that made Casino Royale work and Schama’s film not work, at least in terms of what we cal audience engagement? Would History of Now have been more compelling if Daniel Craig had been the presenter instead of Simon Schama? I don’t think so. I don’t think that was the problem.

This is a really critical issue if we are going to continue to have a literate and educated society, yet one that spends most of their time watching instead of reading. 

The difference is not one of content, per se, as even Casino Royale delivers vast amounts of information that are essential for you to follow the story. Rather it is one of media architecture. Casino Royale works, whereas Schama does not, because Casino Royale is classic storytelling, in the school of Joseph Campbell, author of the seminal Hero With A Thousand Faces. It has characters you can relate to, an arc of story and a conclusion. I would add that great movie makers from Steven Spielberg to George Lucas have all said that they used Campbell as a textbook. 

Can we also apply Campbell’s rules to Schama’s (and all non-fiction) content? I think so. 

In Casino Royale James Bond is the main character, the star of the movie and that is whom you relate to. In History of Now, Simon Schama is the main character, and the ‘star’ of the movie, and this is why it does not work. The History of Now is, when examined, merely a very long interview with Simon Schama. Interviews are boring. If Casino Royale had been made in this way, the movie would have been a long interview with Ian Flemming, illustrated, as was History of Now, with photos and film clips.

In Schama’s work, should not be the star. He is the author. Ayn Rand and Charlie Chaplin are the stars and they are the only ones you should see. They are the main characters and they have in their own stories, all the elements for a classic Campbellian conflict. It’s not the content, it’s the architecture.

When documentary filmmakers elide the narrator from the center of the story, it works. This is what Ken Burns does. You never see him on screen – for him, it is all about the characters. This is also true for one of my favorite documentaries – Vietnam, A Television History by Stanley Karnow. (It’s also a great book by the same title), but you never see Karnow. 

In our Bootcamps for TV news networks, we remove the reporter from the story and focus on the characters in the news story and create a Campbellian arc of story – Netflix meets News. And it works. Every time. 

If you found this interesting, you should take a look at my new book THE RISE OF THE MEDIAVERSE. 


Copyright @Rosenblumtv 2022


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