Just for a moment, I want you to put yourself in the role of the viewer and imagine that you have switched on a program marketed as a factual special. Now imagine that what you are presented with is a show about dragons – how they could possibly fly, the science behind their fire-breathing ways, the composition of their armor-like skin. But, you may ask, how can a non-fiction program be based on creatures that have only ever existed in fairytales? Good question. Still, this concept isn’t one I made up; it’s currently being developed by a major factual channel.
To be fair, the plan for the dragon doc (to the best of my knowledge) is to state up front that the beasts are mythical, then use sound scientific reasoning to address the ‘but if they were real, how could they…’ scenario. It’s an innovative idea, and part of me applauds the creativity. However, another part of me wonders whether the show’s premise wanders too far from the core element of doc programming, which is the real world. And, would it be clear to a viewer tuning in five or ten minutes after the start of the show that the program does not assume dragons may have existed?
The truth is, doc-makers and broadcasters have no choice but to test new ways of adding vitality to non-fiction shows, because the fight for viewers’ attention is only becoming more intense as the plethora of options on tv (and in theaters) continues to widen. The experimentation is going on across non-fiction genres and in most of the major territories of the world (we discuss what’s happening in history and science specifically on pages 36 and 42, respectively). The trick is figuring out how far to go without breaking the basic pact with the audience.
Viewers expect to be entertained, but when they choose to watch a factual program they also expect to be getting the facts. How far is too far? There’s no one answer, because audience tastes vary from place to place and they continue to evolve. Perhaps the best guide is intent: if the goal is to build on non-fiction’s foundation by borrowing elements or techniques from other genres, that’s in the safe zone; but, if the borrowing segues into emulating, expect the danger light to flash.
On balance, pushing the boundaries of documentary holds more promise of freshening the form than diluting it. Docs can’t move forward if their creators stay married to old definitions. And, who knows? Maybe we’ll uncover a dragon fossil yet.
P.S. I’ll be off on maternity leave until next summer, so best of luck in the months ahead. Keep sending your ideas and updates, but in the interim, please direct them to executive editor Mary Maddever (firstname.lastname@example.org). Happy holidays!