We’ve all met one at some point in our lives: the man — because it’s always a man — who, when the conversation turns to television, loftily sniffs: “I never watch television... except for documentaries.”
h yes. Mr Television Snob. Never seen a drama in his life (unless it’s a BBC Shakespeare). Doesn’t waste his time on comedies. Wouldn’t be caught dead watching a soap or a light entertainment show.
You have to feel a smidgen of sympathy for Mr Television Snob. He’s a man out of time, a relic from an age when documentaries were often regarded, even by some broadcasting organisations, as something to be consumed because they’re nutritious and good for you. Like broccoli or porridge or Marcel Proust.
But that’s all changed. Mr Television Snob has been displaced. He’s no longer the only Tigger in the forest. His one claim to moral and intellectual superiority (bogus as it may have been, since most people tend to include documentaries in their weekly television diet anyway) has been cruelly snatched away. We’re all documentary-watchers now. We’ve never watched as many documentaries and there’s never been as many of them to watch.
It’s not pushing it to say we’re living in a golden age of documentaries. The ground started to shift in the early Noughties, when feature documentaries broke out of the festival circuit and into multiplexes, where they proved they could make money.
Michael Moore’s 2002 film Bowling for Columbine, about American gun violence, made $58m worldwide — a record for a documentary at the time. An Inconvenient Truth (2006), “starring” former US Vice President Al Gore, made $50m.
It was Moore’s next film, however, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), that really blew the doors off, with earnings of $222m.
The fuse of the documentary revolution may have been lit in cinemas, but the explosion has been in television and streaming.
The arrival of PBS America in 2011 unlocked a vast library of superb documentary films and series, including American Experience, which covers every aspect of US culture, politics and history imaginable; the science series Nova; and the current affairs series Frontline.
Irish and British viewers could see Ken Burns’ epic series, including The Civil War, Jazz, Prohibition and The Vietnam War, in full for the first time, rather than in the severely truncated versions shown in the past by the BBC and RTE.
Another excellent channel, which is usually unfairly overlooked, is Smithsonian, which has some real gems, not least the evocative America in Colour series.
Netflix has arguably played the most significant part of all in increasing the availability and popularity of documentaries. Its documentary catalogue is large and eclectic, and is fast turning into one of the best reasons — and possibly the best reason — for having a subscription.
Even viewers who don’t go searching for documentaries, and perhaps don’t tend to watch many of them, might find themselves watching one anyway.
If, for example, someone watches When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s superb drama miniseries about the Central Park Five, they’ll automatically be pointed in the direction of her equally superb feature documentary The 13th, about the link between race and mass incarceration in the United States.
Similarly, watch a movie about space travel and you’ll almost certainly find yourself invited to check out Todd Douglas’s breathtaking documentary Apollo 11. The Netflix algorithm can be a pain in the arse sometimes, but it has its uses, too.
It’s a measure of how important documentaries have become to broadcasters that new channel Sky Documentaries — which carries the cream of US cable broadcasters HBO and Showtime’s output — was launched last week with same kind of fanfare that attended Sky Atlantic back in 2011.
It’s about time that fact beat fiction.