Perhaps the best analysis of the past 10 years in the non-fiction genre was offered by David K. Foot the summer before realscreen even launched, with the title of his book Boom, Bust & Echo.
When we began realscreen in September of 1997, the factual industry was just finding its feet internationally. It was opening its eyes for the first time to realize it was not just a pastoral, domestic entity. It was an international phenomenon in the making.
Armed with that realization, factual players began to spread across the globe, and realscreen went with them. It’s not entirely coincidental that National Geographic Channels International shares the magazine’s birth month; both were conceived with the understanding that something was happening in the world of non-fiction that had not happened before. A global audience was waking to the possibility that visual entertainment was no longer just the domain of the sitcom or the cop drama; that the real world could be as fascinating as anything conceived by a Hollywood writer, and the money was there to support it.
And since that time, it’s been as Foot described: boom, bust and echo. Global players like Discovery and the BBC have expanded, contracted, and expanded again. Huge producers and distributors that once filled the frame, such as ITEL, have dominated and then disappeared. In fact, the economies of entire nations have expanded and exploded (as Germany did earlier this decade), creating boom industries, and then almost completely wiping them out.
We’ve gone to war, gone online, gone global, gone digital, turned on, tuned in and done anything but dropped out.
But what struck me the most, as I turned every page of every issue that realscreen has published, was the cyclical nature of our industry. Some months later, trepidation is replaced with certainty. Then comes the crisis of confidence and the hunkering down; and back again. Frantic expansion is followed by pause or retreat; and then subsequent steps forward. And so on.
That’s not to say, however, that history is stuck repeating itself. Anything but. Hesitancy and economic downturns don’t entirely offset the drive onward. One gets the unmistakable feeling of forward movement in the many genres that come under the factual or non-fiction banners. Where we’re headed is always anyone’s guess, and if anyone professes to know the answers, they’re likely trying to sell you something. But it looks to this more-than-casual observer that our genre is likely to be the backbone of entertainment incarnations for years to come.
While the busts are inevitable, so too are the booms, and our gains will far outweigh our losses in the decade to come.
So, before we bravely head out under that rising sun, let’s take a moment to look back. What follows is a (very) quick retelling of the last decade, and some of the events that realscreen has had the honor of watching unfold.
Please CLICK HERE for a complete PDF of the timeline.