British documentaries were once the gold standard, winning critical acclaim around the world. But leading documentary-makers are warning that the industry is now in crisis, with funding siphoned off to factual entertainment and reality-television shows.
The struggle to persuade broadcasters to continue putting resources into documentaries is highlighted by a campaign to save the BBC's respected Storyville, which is threatened by cuts of 60 per cent to its already tiny budget of £2.2m.
Kevin Macdonald, the director of The Last King of Scotland, this week became the latest to add his voice to the campaign against the cuts to the BBC4 international documentary strand. An online petition at www.savestoryville.org has already attracted more than 2,600 signatures. The campaign's founders are now preparing a detailed dossier to present to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to support their case.
Macdonald, whose Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September appeared on Storyville last year, told Broadcast magazine: "I think it is totally outrageous that the BBC is so savagely cutting the budget of the one remaining strand of quality programmes on the whole network. It is nothing short of vandalism."
Storyville's editor, Nick Fraser, said he was optimistic that a deal would be reached to preserve the series, which has won 200 prizes in 10 years. But he warned that a new series of 10 films about democracy that was launched this week could not have been made if the budget were cut by 60 per cent.
Fraser blamed the lack of funding for documentaries on the trend for factual entertainment – shows such as Channel 4's Wife Swap and Supernanny and programmes ranging from DIY SOS to Ray Mears' Wild Food on the BBC.
"The edging out of documentaries because of factual entertainment has been very serious in the past few years. It means that documentary film-makers have a sense of being marginalised; that what they do doesn't matter to television."
He warned against moving towards the situation in the US, where documentaries have been "bumped off" television screens into cinemas.
For many years, British documentary makers were the envy of the world, as they were able to secure 100 per cent funding for their films from the terrestrial broadcasters in the UK. As these broadcasters face increasing competition and dwindling audience ratings and advertising revenues, this is no longer the case, and UK film-makers now have to go through the time-consuming process of seeking funding from a variety of international sources.
Nick Broomfield, whose docu-drama Ghosts, inspired by the tragedy of the Chinese cockle-pickers who drowned at Morecambe Bay, has its terrestrial premiere on Channel 4 next week, said: "All the television stations have gone ratings mad and it's particularly disappointing with something like the BBC which has a big public service function. I think it's incredibly short-sighted.
"Storyville has a very committed audience. It's tucked away on BBC4, but it has a massive impact worldwide, because it's truly international, which is what the BBC was set up to be."
Tom Roberts of October Films, who is running the Save Storyville campaign, said: "The audiences haven't gone away. They just look at the listings and see there's no longer a documentary on a Monday night and read a book instead."
Heather Croall, the director of the Sheffield Documentary Festival, which takes place in November in association with The Independent, said: "If there's any country in the world that's the king of documentary making, it's Britain. We all have to stand up and make the case for the art of documentary making."
On the online petition, the German film director Werner Herzog wrote: "This would be a catastrophe for me. Some of the best films I have made were only possible through Storyville."
One Day In September (1999) – Kevin Macdonald's account of the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage crisis, in which nine Israeli athletes died, won an Oscar, although critics said it did not adequately depict the motives of the terrorists.
A Cry From The Grave (1999) – Leslie Woodhead took a year to make his award-winning documentary about the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which the Bosnian Serb army killed an estimated 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, the worst act of mass murder in Europe since 1945.
When The Levees Broke (2006) – Spike Lee's award-winning documentary investigated how African Americans in New Orleans suffered in Hurricane Katrina and challenged the US government over its sluggish response.Reuse content