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Fast Foreword: The Editor's Column, April 2002

By Tom White

As Michael Donaldson mentions in his column, the Oscars® telecast spotlighted 60 years of Best Documentary honors with a stellar tribute, produced by filmmaker Penelope Spheeris; in this issue Jason Lyons looks at the new Documentary Branch, formed last year, and former IDA President Chuck Workman, an Academy Award® winner for his short Precious Images, reflects on how the documentary field has evolved over the past 20 years, both in and out of the Academy.

As I write this column, in early March, ABC, the longtime broadcaster of the Academy Awards, is mulling over the possibility of eliminating its flagship news program Nightline—even going so far as to make overtures to late night entertainer David Letterman as a high profile replacement. One ABC executive, who remained anonymous, maintained that Nightline had lost its relevance.

Six months removed from September 11, it was news programs like Nightline that dominated the airwaves for days on end, and we were reminded of just how vital and relevant this programming was to us. And while demographics may dictate corporate decision-making more and more, one would think that in times of war and terror—or even not—that the province of news, actuality and documentary programming would remain sacrosanct.

This frenzied fixation on the 18-34 demographic among advertisers and broadcasters has always been perplexing to me. Is the assumption among the top brass that this age group is so immune to programs like Nightline that entertainment must rule the day? Do the advertisers assume that the once one eclipses that sacred age spectrum, one loses purchasing power, or even the impulse to buy? Networks began scaling back on nonfiction programming decades ago, letting cable and public television take up the slack. And since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which quickened consolidation just as did competition, we’ve seen even less actuality programming—and even more reality programs.

It is encouraging, then, that in the same week as the troubling news from ABC, CBS aired 9/11, a two-hour documentary by Jules and Gedeon Naudet, who happened to be making a film about New York City firefighters when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. CBS aired this film with only three commercial breaks, lasting a total of seven minutes. So much for demographics!

The networks have a responsibility to their shareholders and investors, but they also have a responsibility to the public. As Nightline's Ted Koppel stated in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, “…When Nightline is gone from the ABC schedule, and should the occasion arrive that our work might again seem relevant to the anonymous executive, it will not then be possible to reconstitute what is so easily destroyed.”


Yourts in actuality,

Thomas White