Looking back on it, one could see the 1970s as being a kind of golden age for documentary series on television. The father of them all was Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969), which became something of a surprise hit. People just couldn’t get enough of this tweedy, donnish fellow talking about art from the medieval period to our own day. It was followed by several landmark series produced in a similar vein, but on different, if still general, cultural subjects. Programs like Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973), John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Age of Uncertainty (1977) (to which Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose (1980) was a libertarian response), and Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New (1980).
Each of these series followed the path charted by Clark, featuring a single narrator taking us on a guided tour through broad topics like the rise of science, the history of economics, or the story of modern art. They were aimed at a general audience, but I think remain informative and educational even for those who have studied a fair bit in these areas. They were also accompanied by companion books that, while well illustrated, were far more than coffee-table ornaments. Indeed, as good as the programs were I think I prefer the books (particularly in the case of The Age of Uncertainty, which didn’t work that well on TV).
I was looking through one of these books the other day and wondering what happened to this great spurt of achievement. Yes, there have been sequels. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980), another hit show accompanied by a bestselling book, was followed-up in 2014 by Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, but that was a development that had to be expected. As good as Sagan was in his day, science had moved on. But who are the other inheritors? I can think only of Simon Schama, host and author of A History of Britain (2000-2002) and Power of Art (2006). And much as I like Schama, and I think he might be the best at this kind of thing we have, I don’t know if he’s quite at the same level.
Civilisation itself had a sequel in Civilisations (2018), which had three presenters (Schama, Mary Beard, and David Olusoga). It didn’t have anything like the same impact. Why was this? Has the age of the cultural documentary series on TV passed? If so, why?
I can think of at least three possible explanations.
(1) We no longer have people like Clark, Bronowski, Galbraith, Hughes, and Sagan: deeply learned and capable of speaking in an assured and accessible way to a general audience. I like Mary Beard and deGrasse Tyson, and various other people I’ve found on the Internet doing good work, but I don’t get the same feeling of authority from them, or of a personality being molded with scholarship into a personal vision. There’s some significance in Clark’s choice of subtitle for Civilisation: A Personal View, and the shift from A Personal Voyage to A Spacetime Odyssey. I’m also tempted to think that this falling off has something to do with universities (where we usually have to go to find these people) becoming more compartmentalized and less concerned with teaching. Still, I do think there’s talent out there, and people capable of doing the job.
(2) Public broadcasters no longer have the budgets to produce quality documentary series. Most of the series from the golden age were made by the BBC or PBS, and those outlets are feeling the pinch. But when you see what the BBC have been able to do with their Planet Earth programs, and what some dedicated individuals are producing and posting on YouTube with virtually no money at all, there’s no reason culture docs can’t be made up to the same standards. I mean, I don’t care for the historical re-enactments anyway, and those are the only parts of most of these shows that look like they would cost very much.
(3) The audience is no longer there. We may think here of the sad decline of the History Channel, which has transitioned to reality-TV shows or investigations into ancient aliens or the likely whereabouts of Hitler. But as much as purists may complain, I’m assuming the people in charge know what they’re doing. Meaning that they understand that quality documentary series just don’t draw enough eyeballs to make them worthwhile. Put another way, even if programs as good as Civilisation or The Shock of the New could be made today, I doubt very many people would watch them. I’m sure they wouldn’t have anything like the sort of impact such shows had forty or fifty years ago. And for this I think we have to mainly blame ourselves.