Doc Soup: The Documentary Channel: All Docs All the Time

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Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup. You can also follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

I don’t get it. Really, I don’t. Do you?

I’m talking about The Documentary Channel, which just about says it all right there: It’s a whole channel for people like you and me. It’s 24/7 programming of “independently produced films sharing the passionate perspective of filmmakers that bring something new to our awareness,” according to its CEO, James Ackerman.

I told Ackerman, who’s based in Nashville, about how I hadn’t caught wind of his channel until recently, and he said he hears that a lot. The thing is, only the Dish Network and DirectTV carry it, bringing the network to 26 million satellite-using homes. That’s a lot of people, but it also leaves a lot of us out of the picture. It’s pretty ironic that the heart of the documentary-generating world, that is, huge swaths of New York City, don’t get it.


Here’s what we’re missing: non-stop airing of documentaries, from classics like D.A. Pennebaker’s A Daybreak Express (Ackerman was watching the short on his network while I interviewed him) to more recent hits like Spellbound, Born into Brothels and Murderball. There’s a homegrown, no-frills feel to the selection; they even have a “staff picks” slot, which reminds me of the good old days, perusing the shelves of my local video store. You can see what they have to offer at the Documentary channel website.

How they get their documentaries is pretty interesting. Ackerman tells me that 60 percent of films come through a known distributor; 20 percent are ones that they find themselves, mostly at festivals; And then the other 20 percent are direct submissions from filmmakers…like you!

That seems like a pretty democratic and cool mix. I see several interesting phenomena at work here. One is that here’s a channel that has a primary viewership that isn’t the obvious one–Strand-visiting, Film Forum-going, coneheads such as yours truly. It’s a documentary channel for the heartland from the heartland! It’s also accessible to filmmakers: Ackerman tells me his mail guy has to haul about a hundred submissions a week through the offices.

Ackerman says he’s trying to convince various cable outlets (especially in Chicago and New York City) to free up space for the channel, and that we’ll be seeing more if it around the nation, as a sponsor at festivals (such as last week’s IDA awards) and as a buyer. (Although, he admits, “I am not sure Sundance knows we exist.”)

Unless I hear otherwise (from the likes of you), then what’s to hate here? Ackerman is feeling bullish, telling me the company is making a profit and the zeitgeist is in its favor; “People are sick and tired of professional journalism,” he says. “They want to get the truth. They are more likely to trust independent, citizen journalism than corporate journalism.”

If you get it, let me know what you think.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki