In the 1990s when satellite distribution of television content was in it’s infancy we got a satellite dish and I would watch the Discovery Channel from the start of the broadcast day to when the programmes were played for the second time that day.
By watching so many documentaries I learned a lot about the world. I watched Mythbusters, Lonely Planet, Modern Marvels and many many other documentaries. It is only ten years later that I stopped watching Discovery. By that time I was no longer in the family home and so documentary viewing was more restrictive. Whilst at the University of Bournemouth and the University of Westminster I did take advantage to watch as many documentaries as I could find. The dissertation I wrote during my third year of studies was about the documentary genre. I had an academic reason to watch these documentaries. It was no longer a hobby.
Aside from the selection of Discovery channels and University VHS tapes documentaries can also be found on national and European channels. I am thinking of Temps Present, Passe Moi Les Jumelles and other factual programmes and current affairs content. These documentaries fit within a specific format to be broadcast at the same times every week.
We then have artistic documentaries like those broadcast on Arte, shown at independent cinemas, festivals and more. These documentaries are not adapted for mainstream viewing. They fill a niche. They are sometimes hard to watch and other times so niche that aside from those with that passion or interest no one will ever watch them.
The Discovery Channel network broadcasts set documentaries at set times on set channels for a set number of hours per day. Viewers can either watch documentaries as they are broadcast or on demand. As PVR arrived viewers could shape their viewing habits around their lifestyle rather than the other way around.
Discovery channel documentaries have two serious flaws, that as a documentary professional cannot stand. The first of these is commercial breaks. When I watch content I want to watch it from start to finish. I don’t want it to be interrupted because it means that for two or three minutes I have to find something else to do. This could be a serious trigger to people having a laptop or tablet with them when watching TV. The second very big flaw with Discovery TV documentaries is sensationalism and repetition.
I found that when watching hour long documentaries on Discovery television channels more than half of the time is spent repeating what has happened and what will happen with very little content left over. You will spend an hour watching a show that could have been over in just 24 minutes. This is an excellent way to lose viewers.
Netflix is a video on demand platform. This platform makes available all of the content it has licensed to it’s customers. This content is ready to play within seconds and has no adverts. This is great for content creators. It means that they can spend more time moving the story forward. There is no need to worry about viewers starting to watch a show half way through. It means that if you have a 42 minute slot you can spend 52 minutes telling the story. This is great for content creators.
The flaw of Discovery Channel documentaries and commercial television in general is that they make mediocre content and then add adverts every few minutes. This means that a mediocre programme will be watched from one commercial to another before the channel is changed. They live under the misconception that sensationalism and excited narration will keep viewers. It has the opposite effect, at least on me.
Netflix allows you to watch the BBC Blue Planet and Planet Earth documentaries with no adverts. This gives documentary makers an advantage. Imagine watching Planet Earth documentary episodes that are 52 minutes long with an extra 15 minutes or more of adverts thrown in. For this reason Netflix is an excellent documentary distribution platform.
‘Make what people want to watch and the rest goes with it’. I don’t think that has changed at all. My job every day is to make what people want to watch.”
I have written several times about my notion that documentaries are encyclopaedias. Planet Earth and Blue Planet documentaries are a perfect demonstration of this. Each episode is about a specific biome. By watching each documentary your knowledge and understanding of the world around you increases.
Compare this to the sensationalist hyperactive content that the Discovery channel network places in between adverts. Their content is so sensationalist and so condescending that I switch programme within minutes, if not seconds, of tuning in. Through having to appeal to a mass audience the Discovery Channel documentary network fails me as a viewer. Their content is too unpleasant to watch.
I want to learn, I want good camera work, good editing and good narration. When documentaries have all of these features I will watch them. I want both the content creator and the content distributor to treat me with respect. Although Netflix is not perfect it does a better job than Discovery.