Founder / Editor


Associate Editor


Assistant Editor











Great Documentaries Are Alive and Well -- Just Not on Broadcast TV
March 25, 2008  | By David Bianculli
PBS offers a fabulous documentary tonight, the conclusion of its thorough two-part Frontline examination of Bush's War. HBO offers a fabulous documentary tonight, too, an inspiring special called Autism: The Musical.

And what do the commercial broadcast networks show tonight in terms of nonfiction documentary programming? Only this: the latest entry in ABC's Primetime series called What Would You Do?, in which John Quinones sets up hidden cameras to see how people react to other people being bullied, or flirted with, or similar senseless stunts.

What's wrong with this picture?


CBS, NBC and ABC haven't forgotten how to do quality prime-time documentaries, when they choose to. Diane Sawyer's programs devoted to inner-city children in Camden, NJ, have been eye-opening modern examinations in the spirit of Edward R. Murrow's classic Harvest of Shame.

When Dateline NBC isn't chasing predators, it does some fine work also, usually with producer Fred Rothenberg's name attached. (He's an old former colleague when we both were newspaper guys, but his body of high-quality TV work over the past decade stands for itself.)

And at CBS, 60 Minutes continues to be not only the most durable show on prime-time TV, but one of the most intelligent and watchable.

But for the most part, if you want to watch probing, worthwhile nonfiction TV, you have to look elsewhere. It's another genre that the broadcast networks, once the home of NBC's White Paper and CBS Reports, have all but abdicated to their competitors.


So tonight, instead, watch Bush's War at 9 p.m. ET, and learn, in crushing detail, of the rivalries and stupidities that led to every move of the war in Iraq -- not only step by step, but misstep by misstep.

Or, at 8 p.m ET (or later, with time-shift TV technology), watch Autism: The Musical, an uplifting yet unblinking documentary from Bunim/Murray Productions. That's the crew that gave us MTV's The Real World, but believe me -- this is the real world.


Tune in as Elaine, with her own autistic son Neal, sets out to mount a musical in which the kids sing of their own problems, hopes and dreams. Watch Henry slowly open up to eye contact. Watch Lexi take to the microphone in song, and soar. Watch Wyatt analyze his own inner world, Adam overcome a frantic tantrum, and Neal reach out to his mom thanks to some new technology.

Most of all, watch the musical climax, where director-cinematographer Tricia Regan captures not only the performances on stage, but the chokingly grateful reactions of their loved ones in the audience. Those reaction shots, alone, are stunningly unforgettable, but so is the entire program.

As for ABC's What Would You Do? -- what I'd do, and recommend you do, is watch Autism: The Musical and Bush's War instead.




Gregg B said:

What Would You Do? is really reality programming, not a psychological experiment. It is Candid Camera without the laughs. The broadcast networks are simply looking at ratings and since 60 Minutes still gets decent ratings it stays on. Documentaries can be both educational and entertaining. I remember when broadcast television showed nature shows. This is not niche television. Michael Moore, whatever you may think of his politics, makes entertaining docs. People can be entertained without seeing someone eat a scorpion.

Comment posted on March 25, 2008 4:36 PM

anchorgirl said:

I found Autism: The Musical surprisingly engaging. The fact that Neal's violent outburst at the picnic didn't end up on the cutting room floor says a lot about the integrity of the documentarians -- although I remain skeptical about how much his "facilitated communication" reflects his own thoughts. But his mother's more than entitled to some suspension of disbelief, having worked such magic with the other kids.

All this talk of TV documentaries makes me wistful for the ones from my formative years: An American Family and Marjoe.
(I actually saw Lance Loud and the Mumps at The Hot Club in Philly with Talking Heads.)
(Wow. You remember An American Family? The PBS granddaddy of all reality-TV docudramas? Great stuff. -- David B.)

Comment posted on March 29, 2008 2:16 AM

Leave a Comment: (No HTML, 1000 chars max)
 Name (required)
 Email (required) (will not be published)
Type in the verification word shown on the image.