The term “docutainment” is as much a misnomer as it is precise in usage and understanding. As with other popular neologisms that have grown in recent years in the genre of documentaries like with the terms “docudrama” and “mokumentary” documentary films have continued to expand the terrain in visual media and entertainment to a point where the informative and the entertaining become closely linked and embedded in one another. Especially in an ever-evolving digital age of 24-hour news cycles, people’s access to voicing their opinion on social media platforms and blog sites, and technology constantly driving human beings to stay in tuned and entertained documentaries in the 21st century has developed vital and unique ways to plugging in viewers in today’s hyper-competitive and hyper-commercial reality. Here, entertainment becomes paramount in producing documentaries particularly for the ubiquitous Millennial Generation already bent on crossover innovation and technology. However, this in no way means that documentaries of the past was not produced for entertainment purposes. It simply means that entertainment has gone to another level with informative, engrossing, educational, didactic, thought-provoking, and heady documentary film content.
Its due to the impaction of accessible video in this proverbial YouTube generation where video is constantly being streamed through smartphones, tablets, laptops, billboards and in cars, airplane seats, dentist offices, and so on that documentary film producers and directors had no choice but to step their game up. Today, digital technology allows any viewer and consumer of media content to turn any video stream off by switching to another channel, logging onto another web page, or simply clicking on another app. In that visual media experience attention spans become fickle and interest on topics consistently malleable. Entertaining viewers for large scale viewership is at the heart of current documentaries. This point of emphasis is responsible for the neologism of the term “docutainment’.
The misnomer of the term comes in when the motives of producing works that are considered “docutainment” is called into question. In some definitions docutainment refers to a class of entertainment that has the pretense of a documentary but is aimed at entertaining the viewer. In this understanding docutainment producers, directors, and even writers uses the guise of a documentary and the motivation/inspiration of documentary filmmaking to construct works that are primarily for entertaining the audience. Similar to the works of mokumentaries that is produced as false narratives—often for comedic purposes—in the guise of a full-fledged documentary docutainment is seen as only enthralling, distracting, and captivating target audiences. The line gets drawn in the sand to the degree in which docutainment is informative and educational on the one hand and entertaining and captivating on the other. The best judge in seeking the dichotomy in a given producer and his production team’s motive for a documentary film upon completion is seeing in what ways the documentary makes an impact on that given society of viewers and in what ways the documentary will be exploited for other purposes than entertainment through monetary compensation.
It’s interesting and eye-opening in the manner in which the term is being debated among documentary film purists and its avid enthusiasts and fans. Could the obsession and societal focus with entertainment be the death of the documentary film genre or rather it’s savior? In an attempt to lure mass audiences for distribution and the pressures for market appeal for a completed film is entertainment rising roughshod over essential documentary filmmaking roots? Is the documentary film genre being watered down so much that it might as well be renamed “Factual Entertainment” another possible neologism added to the influential genre of documentaries? Can documentary satisfy varying people’s need for entertainment whilst staying true to it’s origins? What does the impact and the meaning of docutainment mean for the next generation of filmmakers? And, how will they learn their craft as technology continues to evolve and expand methodologies and approaches to documentary filmmaking?
So many questions leaves the reality of just how specific documentaries have been understood over time and the need to better understand the motives and inspiration behind documentary film content and its production. But these same questions also reveals how the genre continues to evolve into the near future. The term “mokumentary” is a portmanteau of the words mock and documentary usually crafted as a parody of historical/current events more for entertaining than for informing and teaching. In the same vein the term “docutainment” can be seen as a parody on fundamental aspects to documentary filmmaking. However, if docutainment’s main focus is to entertain through the guise of a documentary, which overall represents teaching, informing, and educating (raising awareness and enlightening), than only one of two things are clear. One, docutainment has always been the case since the genre of documentaries was first realized, conceived, and developed or two, docutainment is a product of the 21st century—a recent phenomenon of a visual media in a digitized, technology-driven world. If the former is the case here then documentary film purists, avid enthusiasts and their fans, who consume documentaries through video-on-demand, create and flood film festivals and take part in panelists of judges for awards, must all admit to the degree in which documentary film is vital in entertaining and captivating audience members. Such a motive may in fact represent the same level of motive as the teaching, informing, and educating (raising awareness and enlightening) aspect is in traditional documentary filmmaking. If the latter is the case than audience members have changed over time and their approach to documentaries have shifted over time as well and the demand in which documentaries have been in recent years is to the point where entertainment is primary among viewers, buyers, distributors, funders, and its producers.