Documentaries, carefully structured television and radio programmes that explore real-life subjects in detail. Documentaries deal with any area of life—history, culture, and the natural world, as well as topical events. They examine their subjects in depth and aim to be authoritative. To this end, documentaries use “primary sources”—people and documents close to the subjects—or expert narration. Some use realism to convey authority, as in cinéma vérité. Journalistic documentaries are investigative, concerned mainly with problems—for example, social deprivation, repressive governments, corruption, commercial exploitation, and the horrors of war.


Documentaries already had a presence in cinema by the late 1920s and early 1930s, most famously in Britain through the work of John Grierson and other film-makers who were working as part of the General Post Office (GPO) film unit. These realist documentaries, which often examined the lives and occupations of the working class (e.g. Industrial Britain, 1933, Robert J. Flaherty; Housing Problems, 1935, Edgar Anstey/Arthur Elton), were described as British cinema’s “finest hour” by film critics who at that time showed little regard for popular British cinema. During the same period, radio showed an interest in the documentary form, and when television began to expand into a mass medium in the 1950s, it too began to explore the possibilities of the documentary. While influenced by documentary traditions from cinema, early TV documentaries (“story-documentaries”) in Britain were often studio-based reconstructions of true situations and events, in part because of the various technological constraints of producing live material “on-the-spot”. Between 1946 and 1956, BBC story-documentaries explored features on juvenile delinquency, marriage, divorce, borstal, women at work, children in care, and “maladjusted children”. As this suggests, the medium rapidly turned its attention to society at large, engaging with the sphere of social issues and current affairs.

In the American context after World War II, topical television documentaries benefited from the vision of two men, reporter Ed Murrow, famous for his wartime radio reports from London, and producer Fred Friendly. American networks broke the restraints of news by submitting issues to more detailed examination within a larger social perspective.

British and Canadian television scored outside the news field with inspired “personal” documentaries by individuals who often produced work of high artistic merit. By the late 1960s and 1970s, expert documentaries on grand themes flourished. Four BBC series achieved particular fame: Civilisation (1969), which included two years’ effort by the art historian Kenneth Clark; America (1972), in the history of the United States by the acclaimed journalist Alistair Cooke; The Ascent of Man (1973), on the development of science as seen by noted polymath Jacob Bronowski; and The Age of Uncertainty (1977), concerning world economic problems described by the American authority John Kenneth Galbraith. Thames Television lavished three-and-a-half years’ work on 26 episodes of The World at War (1974), a history of World War II.

Additionally, popular television added to everyday knowledge of wildlife in programmes about creatures in their natural locations. The best also advanced scientific understanding. The Frenchman Jacques Cousteau, for example, did so with his televised underwater explorations in the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, beginning in the 1950s the British naturalist Sir David Attenborough enabled millions of viewers of his popular documentaries around the world to experience unique images of wildlife in various habitats.

It is important to note that from the very start, the characteristics of television as a medium and the space in which it is viewed impacted on the development of the documentary form. For example, the domesticity of television has encouraged the desire for intimate subject matter, particularly in forms of observational film-making that offer the sense of getting close to people’s lives. This feeling of intimacy, as well as the appeal to mundanity and domesticity, is manifest in producer Paul Watson’s observational series for the BBC, The Family (1974) (the British version of An American Family, 1972), which documented the ongoing lives of the members of a working-class family in Reading (The Wilkins family). As this example makes clear, television also ushered in the documentary serial form to suit its own scheduling patterns.


Documentary styles vary. In his 1994 study Representing Reality, the documentary historian Bill Nichols mapped out different types of documentary form. These included the observational documentary (in which the film-maker claims to intervene as little as possible—often equated with “fly-on-the-wall”), expository documentary (authoritative interviews, voice-over), reflexive documentary (the film-maker as part of the film itself—often questioning the process of film-making), and the interactive documentary (focusing on the interaction between filmmaker and subject, overtly crossing the line of objectivity). However, these different styles are regularly blurred in television documentaries, in no small part in recent years due to the hybridization of the documentary and its mixing with other generic forms (see below).


Personal documentaries of all kinds rely on individual talent. Others are the work of teams, including researchers and editors, although small-scale technology encourages the efforts of lone individuals, especially in situations of risk. Small video cameras and small sound recorders help because they can easily be taken anywhere. However, the costs of good-quality television documentaries are high. To meet them, producers have several choices: to sell their work in many countries if it appeals across different cultures; to take sponsorship; to be funded by a broadcasting organization with big audiences, or to arrange co-production deals with several broadcasting stations in different countries.


Precisely because of their claim to represent reality, documentaries have often created controversy. For example, documentaries agitate authority when they shock or challenge orthodoxy. In Britain, the Conservative government fiercely condemned Thames Television in 1988 for Death on the Rock, about the killing of three Northern Irish terrorists in Gibraltar by British security agents. Television companies have themselves stopped programmes: a television documentary called Hang Up Your Brightest Colours (1973), about the Irish republican leader Michael Collins, made by the Welsh actor-producer Kenneth Griffith for the British station ATV (Associated Television) was not shown for more than 20 years. The subject was held to be too sensitive because terrorist violence arising from the same issues was then killing and injuring hundreds of people in Northern Ireland. A BBC documentary about nuclear war, The War Game (1965), was similarly withheld for years during the international Cold War tensions between the communist countries and the Western democracies from the 1950s to the 1980s as the programme was judged to be too disturbing.


Dramatized documentaries, or docudramas, have also ignited controversy. Such programmes mix real-life recordings with re-enactments. When crucial evidence is missing, the programme-makers use actors to reproduce what they believe happened. When this contradicts official versions, it has been denounced as “faction”, that is, fiction pretending to be fact. Critics said it was a regrettable new development. It was, in fact, a revival of methods used years earlier and made more effective by generations of experience. In one telling example, Granada Television mixed traditional documentary, investigative journalism, and drama in Who Bombed Birmingham? The programme, shown in 1990, questioned the criminal convictions of six people (the “Birmingham Six”), named others as the culprits, and helped secure the release of individuals wrongfully jailed.



The perceived blurring of generic boundaries in the docudrama—the fictional and the factual—has often provoked controversy leading to heated debate, more so since the 1990s. The increasingly competitive, multi-channel television environment has significantly altered the commissioning and transmission of factual programming. Critics argue that this has placed a premium on the material being entertaining and accessible, often leading to debates about “dumbing down”. For example, the journalist Adam Sweeting has noted that the word “documentary” “used to carry connotations of authority, gravity, and probity…Today, the word has shed its original meaning.” The documentary theorist John Corner, in his paper “Documentary in a Post-Documentary Culture?” (2001), has described an increasing use of the documentary as “diversion”—where the intention is to entertain, rather than to educate or inform.

In the late 1990s, the “docusoap” form, in programmes such as Airport (1996), The Cruise (1998), Vets in Practice (1996), and Airline (1999), achieved great popularity in Britain. As the title of the form suggests, the docusoap combines techniques from the documentary (the claim to investigate “real” life, the use of a voice-over) with techniques from soap opera (intersecting narratives, ongoing storylines, characterization, drama/melodrama). While popular with audiences, many cultural commentators saw the docusoap as a trivialization of the documentary form, and the popularity of the docusoap was seen as limiting opportunities for other documentaries to be commissioned and scheduled.

“Reality TV” has equally emerged as a hybridized form of popular factual programming. Although often hard to define, the term was initially associated with emergency services or “real” crime TV in the early 1990s, before it later became linked to a “gamedoc” phase, in which popular formats incorporated elements of the game show (Big Brother, Survivor, both 2000), or the talent contest (Pop Idol, 2001). These later formats, which constructed their own arenas solely for television, have moved further away from any clear documentary base. It has been claimed by critic Bill Nichols that documentaries traditionally aimed to make an “argument” about the social world, and it would certainly be difficult (or inappropriate) to apply this to much of Reality TV. At the same time, it seems important to note that something like Big Brother, which combines generic references to the documentary, talk show, and game show, is not intended as a documentary. In this respect, academic theorists have increasingly explored how popular factual programming needs to be approached on its own terms, rather than simply dismissed as a trivialization of the documentary. (This argument also idealizes the history of documentary.) Scholars have analyzed, for example, Reality TV’s cultural construction of celebrity, its playful manipulation of the “real”, and the extent to which such formats address audience participation in new ways.

Contributed By:
John Wilson

Reviewed By:
Su Holmes