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RealScreen and Cold Realities

RealScreen Summit, February 1-3, the annual coming together of documentary cable programmers and hopeful producers, is also an annual cold shower in the realities of making television today. At a panel on product placement in reality programming, one speaker said with not a trace of irony (and remarkable clarity), "Our audiences come to us to escape from reality. That's the first thing we have to satisfy." A keynote speaker celebrated the fact that changing technologies make it ever more possible for content producers to tailor their content to the needs of advertisers. The overarching theme seemed to be, Embrace the advertiser. The road to audience attention seemed to be ever more edge-of-seat sensationalism. The makers of "Whale Wars," a Discovery program that follows the boat Sea Shepherd (right out there on the lunatic fringe of the environmental movement) in its stalking of Japanese whalers, discussed their delight in showcasing the erratic and sometimes poor behavior of its captain-one way in which they can boldly show they are not taking sides.

It is all a far cry from the themes and attitudes of social documentarians who flock to Sundance and other film festivals, but it is the world that many of them depend upon to pay their bills. That is why we were honored when RealScreen asked the Center to organize a panel on ethics, based on our report, Honest Truths. I was joined by POV's Simon Kilmurry, American University's Maggie Stogner , entertainment lawyer Michael Donaldson, and filmmaker Joe Berlinger . Each gave the audience a scenario from their own experience, and challenged the audience to vote. (Berlinger's was drawn from his experience on Paradise Lost, when a subject gave him a bloody knife in confidence; he turned it over to police, knowing it might sabotage the production.)

In the report, we had noticed that many filmmakers found the ever-increasing pressures of cable production to make them cut corners ethically as well as financially-heightening drama, substituting footage, altering time lines, even crippling an animal to make a wildlife kill scene easier. These issues came up not only on the panel, but also in the audience. However, people picked their words carefully, and some sat on their hands. Afterwards, a cable channel producer whispered to me, "When you were talking, I just said to myself, Guilty, guilty, guilty. We have no ethics where I work. It doesn't come up." The panel showed me again that the challenge that makers face in a tough producing environment is heightened (as we noted in the report) by the stifled nature of ethics discussion. Documentarians need safer environments to have serious discussions about what they expect of themselves.

RealScreen also graciously invited Washington College of Law's Peter Jaszi, Michael Donaldson and me to present a workshop on fair use. Once again we saw familiar misunderstandings. One producer could believe that fair use applied to low-cost independent films-"but TV programs?" Yes, TV programs, bankrolled by major media companies, programs that depend on $19.95 DVD sales later. When one producer finally understood the range of possibilities offered to her because of fair use, she blurted out, "But this could change the entire way we make programs!" At the same time, Donaldson said, "Yes!" with a broad smile; Peter Jaszi said, "It already has!"; and I said, "We sure hope so!"

One piece of strikingly hopeful news for the genre of documentary: Oprah's Book Club will be extended to documentary film. Depending on the films ultimately chosen, that could vastly increase the credibility and visibility of documentary filmmaking. And it will also increase the need to articulate standards and practices within the field.