Tube Talk: Documentaries

By Paula Hendrickson
Contributor

Having covered Minding the Gap – the brilliant documentary film by former Rockfordian Bing Liu – last week, it felt like a good time to discuss the wealth of amazing documentaries on TV these days.

Long ago, PBS was pretty much the only place on TV where you could find fascinating documentaries, thanks to carefully curated collections of documentary films, Frontline and POV. PBS is also home to all of Ken Burns’ classic documentary series including The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz.

HBO and Showtime are also known for their documentary offerings. Even Netflix, which built its name on bingeable scripted series, realized that its subscriber base included an audience hungry for well-produced documentaries. Over the past couple of years, Netflix has really expanded its inventory of acquired and original documentary films and series.




A big reason premium services and PBS have become havens for documentaries is that they’re not reliant on advertising dollars. PBS is primarily funded by grants and viewer contributions, and premium cable and streaming outlets are funded by subscription fees. Without advertisers to please, they don’t need to cater to any specific niche or worry that a program won’t draw a massive audience.

But even some ad-supported basic cable channels are investing in documentaries.

ESPN has pretty much cornered the market on sports-related documentaries since the 2009 debut of its award-winning 30 for 30 documentary series. Each installment covers an important person or story from sports history, and while the individual films are about sports, they tell broader stories that even people who aren’t sports fans can enjoy.

Meanwhile, CNN’s Original Series include documentary-style series including The History of Comedy, United Shades of America, and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (the final episodes, mostly completed after Bourdain’s death in June, will return this fall). Additionally, CNN Films produces documentary films that are theatrically released prior to airing on CNN.

The latest one, RBG – about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – earned rave reviews on the festival circuit, and will have its television debut Monday, September 3.




Bringing things full circle, Minding the Gap’s Liu is also one of the filmmakers involved in Starz’s highly lauded new docuseries America to Me, which premiered August 26.

America to Me follows the lives of students and faculty at Oak Park and River Forest High School, to see how its diverse mix of students deal with the effects race and privilege still have in the educational system, and how that impacts teenagers coming of age in today’s world. After watching the first episode I programmed my DVR to record the entire series.

Before saying, “Documentaries aren’t for me,” try imaging them as reality shows. A documentary series can be every bit as engaging as a well-made reality show, and you might even learn something – perhaps that you actual like documentaries.

Programming notes:

America to Me airs Sundays at 9 p.m. CT on Starz

RBG airs Monday, September 3 at 8 p.m. CT on CNN R.

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