NBC 1992 premiered products and its effects


Television had come of age in the 1960s, establishing the medium as the driving force in
American cultural life, the medium of all the media. But in the 1980s the structure of the
television industry itself underwent a radical change, the result of deregulatory measures
initiated by the Reagan Administration. Change in ownership rules, encouragement of
cable and satellite channels, the emergence of Fox as a fourth broadcast network, brought
an end to a television world dominated by the three networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC.
Deregulation redrew the documentary landscape. Cable expanded rapidly,
reaching close to 80% of American homes by the year 2000. By then, the three major
networks, which in 1980 attracted 90% of the prime time audience, and now were joined
by Fox, saw their share cut by half. Audiences could choose between scores of channels.
On many of these channels, documentaries were basic program fare. Even channels
whose specialty lay elsewhere, like MTV and HBO, included occasional documentaries
in their schedules to help build a network image, in HBO’s case perhaps to offset the
channel’s late night offering of nonfiction erotica.
The flood of documentaries produced by the three networks in the 1960s
dwindled in the last two decades of the century to a trickle. CBS Reports dropped to an
average of three a year, NBC’s News Reports and White Paper ended in 1984 and 1988
respectively, and ABC’s Close-Up also ended in 1988. In their place the networks
concentrated on documentary-style news magazines, of which CBS’ 60 Minutes was the
long established leader. In 1978 60 Minutes became one of the top-rated shows on
television. ABC’s 20/20 went on the air in 1978, joined by Prime Time Live in 1989;
CBS’ 48 Hours began in 1988, followed by 60 Minutes II in 1999. 

NBC’s Dateline
premiered in 1992. Special news reports covered major events at greater length.
Changing technology also contributed to this new documentary environment. In
the mid-1970s video camcorders began to be used professionally on some news and
sports programs. By 1980 they had replaced film cameras everywhere in news gathering
operations. Portable video cameras were more flexible than film cameras and cheaper to
use. They could be adapted to the size of a pinhole and concealed in a room or a pair of
eyeglasses. VHS made it easier for social and political activists to distribute their own
videos. Teachers, disadvantaged groups, minorities–all who felt excluded from main
stream media–could now shoot their own nonfiction productions.
The growth of the Public Broadcasting Service contributed to the withdrawal of the
commercial networks from the hour-long (or occasionally three-hour long) documentary
form. PBS came into being following the creation by Act of Congress of the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting in 1967. Its mostly middle-class audience was a fraction of the
networks’ in size, but as the networks’ share of the total audience diminished toward the
end of the century, the audience for documentaries on PBS remained viable. Many of
Wiseman’s films were shown on PBS, as were BBC products: Civilisation (1970),
featuring the British art historian Kenneth Clark talking directly to - lecturing at - the
camera, Life on Earth (1979), with David Attenborough, and Cosmos (1980) with Carl
Sagan. The compilation form, begun and then abandoned by the networks, was
perpetuated on PBS with Eyes on the Prize (1980) by Henry Hampton, Vietnam: A
Television History (1983), and the on-going series The American Experience. The Civil
War (1990) by Ken Burns, a careful historical reconstruction based primarily on still
photographs, was broadcast on five consecutive nights to record PBS audiences.
Boston’s PBS station, WGBH, became a major center of documentary production,
many of them co-productions with the BBC. Funded largely by grants and corporations,
PBS established Nova and Frontline, like The American Experience, as umbrella titles
that covered wide differences in form and subject matter. Nova’s Miracle of Life (1983)
showed how human conception takes place with micro cameras recording the sperm’s
journey to the egg. It was widely distributed in schools for biology classes in human

Lost on Everest (1999), a Nova - BBC coproduction, recorded an
expedition that retraced Mallory’s and Irvine’s last climb on Everest in 1924. The team
found Mallory’s body some 1000 feet below the summit in the position death overtook
him as he fought to arrest his fall. The documentary made full use of Captain Noel’s
historic film of that expedition, thus linking two distinct eras of the documentary.
Frontline’s subject matter and form have likewise varied greatly, for example,
from Ruanda, The Face of Evil (1999), an indictment of the Clinton Administration’s
policy in Africa, to From Jesus to Christ (1998), a two part survey of current theological
scholarship on the beginnings of Christianity.
In the POV series, begun in 1988, PBS provided a showcase for independent
producers, whose documentaries often expressed personal interests (hence the title, short
hand for "point of view"). 

Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven was in its inaugural series. Two
examples from POV illustrate the increasing role of women in documentary work, as well
as the diversity of its subject matter: Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1988) a study by two
young Asian American women, Christine Choy and Renee Tajima, of the murder in
Detroit of a Chinese American, Vincent Chin, after a bar-room brawl with a white auto
worker; and Rabbit in the Moon (1999) by Emiko Omori, a Japanese American
filmmaker, who looked back on the history of her family and other Japanese Americans
interned after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941

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