Documentary and the commercialisation of television

Documentary and the commercialisation of television

Anna Zoellner


Since its first broadcast, television and documentary have led a close relationship. For many years documentary has been a central element of British television schedules and played an important role for broadcasting’s public service remit. As a result, most British documentary producers and filmmakers rely to a large extent on broadcasters for the funding and distribution of their work. Since the 1990s we have seen a dramatic restructuring of the television industry in the UK, which has transformed the production context for documentary and reduced the air of protectionism surrounding documentary. Digitalisation and the creation of online media have contributed to the emergence of alternative distribution platforms and a multi-channel environment that challenge the traditional organisation and practice of television production. At the same time competition has increased and production funds are in decline. The result is a shift toward the commercialisation and commodification of television programming based on the principle of consumer sovereignty – including documentary. This paper examines the consequences for the production of television documentaries and the texts that are created under these conditions.


Because they seldom command high ratings, documentaries are not a high priority for broadcasters in this commercial climate compared to other programme genres, and a formerly protectionist attitude toward documentary is being eroded alongside public service broadcasting values. Based on an ethnographic study in independent production companies, the paper discusses several tendencies and strategies in the development of new documentary programmes that are shaped by commercially induced risk aversion, on the one hand, and the need for commercial success, on the other. They include a reduced understanding of originality and the preference for familiarity with the objective to control commercial success, preferences for exclusive and extraordinary content in a bid for audience attention and the attempt to rationalise work processes. The paper discusses the implications of these developments for our understanding of documentary as a genre, in particular, for its diversity and traditional social functions, and asks whether we need to re-evaluate documentary as a generic category.


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