A new path

There are known knowns. There are known unknowns.
September 1, 2006

There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. But, there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don’t know we don’t know – Donald Rumsfeld, 2003

When Donald Rumsfeld said the fateful words reproduced above, the ‘unknown unknown’ in the doc world was how the Internet would couple with the power of independent documentary and how, through this new power, a new form of democratic accountability would start to emerge.

Four years later, that’s exactly what is happening around the world – and on a computer screen near you.

‘The demise of documentary’ is a phrase I’ve heard at every conference on every continent since I first entered TV in the late ’80s. But, this year, something strange has taken place. All of a sudden docs are online, and communication through online forums is the new way to make friends with shared interests (e.g. Myspace, YouTube). This combination has spawned an online public conscience around a variety of issues, and it may be emerging as a new force in politics.

‘Lofty stuff,’ I hear you say as you read this, worrying about where your next commission is coming from. But get this: in November 2005, I took on a doc few broadcasters and even fewer distributors would touch. It concerned 9/11 and asked two simple questions: does the official theory of 9/11 have any veracity; and secondly, who stood to benefit from 9/11?

On the face of it, they’re reasonable questions, given we are now engaged in a war which, in Dick Cheney’s words, is ‘likely to last for generations.’ You would have thought the subject would be meat and potatoes for traditional broadcasters. But those questions, it seemed, were too dangerous for the people to whom we pay our licence fees and pledge dollars.

So, two 22-year-olds from upstate New York decided to ask the questions themselves in a doc called Loose Change 2. The story they produced, made for just US$10,000, lacks production values but it’s compelling viewing, held together by an enthralling soundtrack and a narrative straight out of a spy movie. Armed with a winning sales spiel, I took it to the Realscreen Summit and offered it to broadcasters. It was unanimously rejected. So, we decided to launch the film online.

Nine months later, 20 million people have downloaded it, 12 different language editions have been made (by whom I don’t know), Vanity Fair has written about it, three movie companies want to coproduce a new 9/11 film made by its directors, and best of all (as far as I’m concerned), 20 audience-aware national and international broadcasters have licensed it to run on or around the anniversary of 9/11.

Thanks to the Internet, the public is no longer reliant on TV as its primary source for information. At the same time, voters are now more skeptical of TV as an independent information source. Many of the disillusioned accuse the mainstream media for failing to hold government accountable and for creating what academics have termed the ‘democratic deficit.’

So what does this tell us about the power of docs on the Net, and what can program-makers learn from the Loose Change phenomenon? First of all, documentary is not dead. It is alive and well and thriving online, albeit quietly. Secondly, program buyers do take notice of what is popular on the Net. Ultimately, it translates into ratings and keeps them employed. Thirdly, independent docs distributed and consumed online – thus cutting out the broadcaster – have a particular appeal to the online audience.

Can we fund production through online alone? No, not yet. But does the Net offer producers and viewers a new way forward? Absolutely.

Rummy might well go down in history as the least successful secretary of defence in history, given that the us has gone from being the most respected to the most reviled nation during his tenure at the Pentagon. But, as a man with a penchant for a snappy quote, Mr. Rumsfeld, I salute you.

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