I recently read that actor/fallen star Lindsay Lohan was in India to make a documentary. “What the…?” I thought. But after initially thinking of this as a sign of the coming doc apocalypse, I’ve begun to see that it’s quite the opposite.
Amidst all this talk about how old media is dying — how newspapers, books, and magazines are getting shut down, reduced and replaced, and after all the hand-wringing in Hollywood about diminishing profits (while revenue is soaring, which is odd) — there’s not been as much talk about the documentary world deflating. And this is a reason to be cheerful: as reality television creates more and more new outlets for docs, it is increasingly clear that nonfiction filmmaking is thriving.

Adrian GrenierLohan jumping on the bandwagon is just a teeny example of how the mainstream continues to embrace docs. (I should note that Lohan isn’t really making the film; she’s probably more like the on-air talent in a doc created by the BBC. The celebrity-turned-doc filmmaker to watch is really Entourage‘s Adrian Grenier, who has shown his dedication by directing one doc (Shot in the Dark) with another one coming out (Teenage Paparazzi), and a third (Where Are Who Now) in the works. The latest and greatest examples of how warmly the mainstream has embraced docs come from two very different media behemoths: Oprah and ESPN.

Last week, Oprah Winfrey announced an upcoming feature that will run on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) when it premieres in 2011. She’s basically taking the concept behind the Oprah Book Club and applying it to documentaries. Anyone who is close to the book world knows how immensely powerful Winfrey’s word can be on the prospects of a book, so this is remarkably good news. Winfrey is partnering with Ro*co Productions for a monthly series that will air on her new network, with some of the docs getting theatrical distribution as well.

And have you turned ESPN on lately? The sports network is airing a bold celebration of its 30 years of existence, showing a documentary about a sporting event for each of those years. Called 30 for 30, the series has a super-cool listing of directors from Hollywood (Ice Cube, Peter Berg, Barry Levinson) and docs (Albert Maysles, Alex Gibney, Barbara Kopple, Dan Klores) looking at poignant and climactic moments in sports. Truth is, ESPN has been doing docs for a while now, but this is a very palpable demonstration of its faith that even its lunkhead viewership (and I include myself in that category — go Giants!) not only appreciates solid nonfiction filmmaking, it will keep coming back for more and more.

So, rejoice doc lovers; the written word may be turning to mulch, but docs are not fading away.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kind Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen