The Shifting Medium of Documentaries

If I were to mention the word ‘documentary’ to you, what would you think? If you were not taken to imagine the scenic shows covering the geography, flora and fauna of the Earth?

The fact is, television fails to provide anything save stale World War II, alien theories, and mean-spirited caricatures of treasure hunters and workers toiling in remote locations. You must follow the half hour, bite sized segments thick with repetition, intelligence insulting music, to say nothing of thick clumps of adverts.

The audience hasn’t gone, and certainly not the content. is a shift. I don’t think in the intelligence of the audience, or in the demand for the documentary watcher who wants to enjoy learning about history, anthropology, the wedding of science and story. What is happening is a shifting of the medium, as the television supplanted the radio and theatre gave way to cinema; 21st century television is ceding ground to internet videos, streaming and independent content creation. Original documentaries, new and advancing documentaries are something you won’t find on channel 3045A on the telly, but you will on Youtube, Odysee, and other websites.

Rather than bemoan modernity or lament the state of current affairs, Nemean® tries to come at things seeing what can be done. And in this case, there is something worth noting that’s artistically significant: The narrative and television monopoly is being taken away.

I’m not criticising particular networks, or the notion of a few large academic sources of documentarians. But a benefit of the decline of television quality is the rising amateur and professional outsiders rising to meet it. Technology provides the ability to record, research; but most importantly disseminate. Now, rather than purchasing say a series about a popular topic on video which needed to make back its money and be the final word on a given subject, which could be played in schools for history class or line your Grandparent’s shelf, people voting with their wallets across the world can reach people with niche ideas, and make niche into popularity in the unprecedented marketplace of the internet.

For example: World War One and World War Two historians and audiences that enjoy studying the period are very into logistical detail, meticulously researching events, investigating many books upon the subject for fun. Rather than a serial or the repeat on television, the TIK history channel can create with audience endorsement a frankly gargantuan ‘Warzone Stalingrad’ series, hours of content to cover a depth the audience finds enjoyable and refreshing. The Great War fulfilled the undertaking of creating a video, every week, throughout and beyond the centenary of the First World War and bringing that history and context in a way never seen before, never conceived of by any artists before the channel. It is not about popular expectation and demand, but the simpler, more artistic root of creativity. What does the audience want? How can I fulfil a gap in the market?

This can feature a many pronged approach also; for example The People Profiles creates documentary videos centred upon a single person’s lifetime in their entirely, but with several monarchs the option to feature a second, contemporary video wherein Professor Robert Bartlett discusses the historical context and lifetime of the individual, pretty much exactly like a well presented university history lecture.

One of the best examples, if not the best iteration of this new generation of documentary is the ongoing Historia Civilis channel and its coverage of the decline of the Roman Republic and rise of Julius and Augustus Caesar. The brilliance of the series is in its simplicity. In presenting moving maps, indicators for people and warm background music the audience learns and is hooked by the unique art style. The eye is not taxed with imagery, because the ‘people’ are represented by simple squares, military divisions into larger ones with crosses covered. The pay-off for this is the documentary can show the exact number of senators which made a vote, it neatly demonstrates the exact size of the political body, exactly how a military battle was fought from the ‘bird’s-eye’ view. It is a documentary made for learning, not the same old footage or with a forced emotive quality, but in order to encourage learning what really happened in a way that politics or poetry often obscures historical fact, or waters down the actual tactics and movements made at the time.

In a way, I don’t resent that documentaries practically no longer exist on television. Because the monopoly on such things is broken by the internet, and supply and demand is very much still alive. I consider a lot of losses a fair exchange for channels like TIK, which features more cited sources and attention to detail than any one hour television segment.

For years, I’ve observed and enjoyed a great deal of online content without fully appreciating how thorough the takeover and creative exchange has been. And, after musing after watching a documentary with relatives that there has been no change, that there is so much possibility that could be brought to light: shedding a little light could do a great deal for all of our creative enjoyment.


Historia Civilis:

The Great War:

The People’s Profiles:


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