The year’s highs & lows

What was the highlight of the past year in the business of docs, and what was the absolute low?
December 1, 2002

Reality shows continued to rankle respondents, but the success of ‘legit’ docs gave them reason to rejoice. Read on to find out what else elicited smiles and sighs.

Pinnacle of happiness

For 48% of those surveyed, the brightest spot in 2002 was the success of factual shows, both in theaters and on television. Observations such as ‘there are so many [non-fiction programs] in production’, ‘docs are still going strong’ and ‘more [are] being made, more outlets’ are reminders of an oft-overlooked truth, particularly when so much of the year’s news has been bad.

On the feature doc side, Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore) and The Kid Stays in the Picture (Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein) were two of the splashiest films to play in theaters this year, but numerous others easily pop to mind – Sandi DuBowski’s Trembling Before G-D, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, by Eugene Jarecki and Alex Gibney, and the Oscar-nominated Promises, by Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg and Carlos Bolado, to name a few.

No doubt inspired by films such as these, several poll participants listed the following as highlights: ‘the increasing realization that feature-length docs are popular with audiences’, ‘more theatrical distribution for documentaries’ and ‘seeing many fine docs playing the screen at my local rep cinema.’

The success of non-fiction TV shows also scored big with those polled. Blue Planet (BBC and Discovery) earned a specific mention for its financial success, while several readers cited the best of the 9/11 works. As one respondent pointed out, ‘Documentary makers rose to the challenge.’ TLC’s addictive Trading Spaces also earned special praise. ‘It’s encouraging to know that shows can succeed on cable without sex and violence entering the picture. It’s a simple idea, has relatively low production costs and still succeeds.’

The second-ranked highlight among survey respondents was broadcaster initiatives, with 21% of the vote. Some comments: ‘more broadcasters are taking risks on first-time filmmakers’, ‘PBS’s ‘Wide Angle’ keeps international issues on the U.S. national airwaves’ and ‘new primetime slots [debuted], like on France 2.’

Perhaps we’ll see more of this next year…?

Depths of despair

The question of the year’s lowlights generated little consensus among survey respondents, though 24% of the vote clustered around the ongoing success of reality series. E!’s The Anna Nicole Show, which debuted in 2002, was named specifically, joining the hit list of disgruntled doc-makers along with Survivor, Big Brother and Fear Factor. According to those who view reality shows as a completely separate entity from all other factual offerings, the success of the genre is ‘sucking money and attention away from legit non-fiction.’

The proposal of Discovery Networks U.S. to move production end credits online and ‘the gang bang of September 11 documentaries’ each registered as the year’s bottom-most happenings with a handful of survey respondents, garnering 14% and 10% of the vote respectively.

The remaining 52% of survey responses consisted of singular entries, ranging from the departure of a favorite broadcast exec to the loss of regional funding. The following is a sampling of those responses:

- ‘Ad sales declined as a result of 9/11, making revenue tight and making new sales tougher, as well as leading to the cancellation of material already sold.’

- ‘Mike Quattrone leaving the Discovery Channel.’

- ‘Most nights on TV.’

- ’2002 was our worst year in 12 years of company history; the insolvency of KirchMedia and more than a dozen other companies affected our business more than badly.’

- ‘Discovery and Nat Geo using producers to squabble with each other.’

- ‘Provincial funding of documentaries was cut in British Columbia [Canada].’

- ‘Fewer and fewer private broadcasters have doc slots.’

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.