Home > Uncategorized > They Want What You Have

They Want What You Have

-first posted at RTDNA.org on March 2, 2010

My town had its big annual documentary shindig this past weekend, the True/False Film Fest.  In its seventh year, the four-day event draws somewhere around 10,000 people to fill the seats of eight quirky film venues in this town of 100,000.  Organizers roll about 35 different films through the weekend, with subject matter ranging from the war in Iraq to Joan Rivers.  Crowds line up in the Missouri February chill to pack in to get the last few seats for showings that run into the wee hours of the morning.  My wife and I were among them, sliding into squeaky theater seats for about a dozen films—including a marathon six in a row on Saturday.

Crazed Christmas shoppers have their “Black Friday”—this is my equivalent.  I look forward to True/False weekend all year long and block out my schedule completely so that I can immerse myself in the documentaries one after another.  And I’m not the only one.  Walking by the other passholders, we compare notes on how many we’ve already seen, trying to show off our cinematic stamina.  And it hit me this year, amidst my theater-seat travels to Finland, Cambodia, and beyond that the success of this festival tells us a lot about TV news.

You see, the reason people travel from all over the world to a town that’s frankly not so easy to get to, the reason they line up in the cold to see these films, the reason the True/False Film fest even exists at all is because people LOVE real life stories.  And they love them even more on a grand scale.  Immerse some real people as characters in a tale about something really important and you’ve got the recipe for a great documentary.  And can tell you without even checking my news directors’ cookbook that’s the same recipe you use to make great TV news.

In case you don’t have that cookbook right there at your desk, let me tell you what’s in your viewers’ favorite recipe.  It begins with a great central character.  The film fest was full of them.  I was completely drawn to a pair of South Korean-born Danish comedians who found themselves part of an elaborate film project deep in the heart of North Korea—oh, and did I mention one of the comedians has cerebral palsy?  I couldn’t stop watching as an Alaska native returned to his home state hoping that global warming would be the help he needed to realize his dream of owning his very own gold mine.  And I wanted to look away but couldn’t as a pair of Pol Pot’s Cambodian killers related their murderous and cannibalistic ways in the Killing Fields.  The audiences were on the edge of their seats for these characters, just as the crucial characters we use in our very own newscasts draw people ever so much closer to their TV.  The Katrina victim, the hero cop, and the dying cancer patient are the characters we use to tell our stories.  And often, they’re the neighbors and friends of the people watching, carrying even more impact the faraway documentary casts.

Beyond the characters, the recipe calls for some measure of importance in the material at hand.  Some important films at the fest featured wars between nations, while others focused on that quiet war between teenagers and their parents.  Politics, pollution, poverty—those were some of the important topics covered by this magnetic group of films.  How many of those have you covered the past few months?  You can see there’s a familiarity to the documentary recipe that’s just like something you cook every day.

Perhaps the last main ingredient (before the directors add their own particular blend of cinematic herbs and spices) is the liberal application of beautiful visuals and breathtaking sound.  I spent my weekend taking in the delicate landscapes of China, the sturdy peaks of the Italian Alps, and the windswept vistas of the American west, all captured in full-on high definition film and video.  But what industry employs more talented visual craftspeople turning out more beautiful footage every day than the TV news business?  We have captured the tough and tender images of our communities for years.  Filmmakers I saw last weekend talked of the hours of footage they had to go through in a year’s time of making their docs.  Our teams shoot and edit that much every day.

Smart, engaged, and active people paid good money to travel to Columbia, Missouri last weekend to watch what you distribute for free every day.  They’re the kind of people you want watching your news.  They’re the kind of people your advertisers want seeing their commercials.  And all you need to do to get them is to follow the recipe.

We’ve strayed from the right ingredients before and driven this group away.  News that doesn’t matter will ruin the dish.  Too many meaningless crime stories, too many celebrities, too many attempts to cover breaking news before we know it’s even real news.  That leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the people with the palates most in tune with what you’re cooking.

There’s one final ingredient—one that some think they can leave out and still satisfy their customers.  Reality TV is a good example.  It looks like documentaries—or even news—at times, but it’s a poor imitation.  It’s had its faux success by turning out cheap, greasy junk food versions of the dishes you and the documentarians create.  The characters are there, flimsy as they often are, but the recipe lacks importance and beauty.  Beyond that, it lacks honesty.   Reality TV cannot captivate a news audience for very long because the dishonesty begins to shine through.  That’s the sickening aftertaste it leaves behind that turns the stomach of true news viewers.

I cleansed my palate at the table of a good portion of the great films last weekend.  I left each one with a growing sense of how wholesome and good TV news is if we stick to the right recipe.  The documentary filmmakers know it.  They treasure their recipes like a gift handed down from generation to generation.  We’ve been careless with ours.  Find the recipe again, choose only the finest ingredients, and when it’s ready, serve liberal portions.  If you do, you’ll have them coming back for more.

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