What follows is a post in our ongoing collaborative series with the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. This is based on a new article by Henry Pratt, “Are You Ready for Some Football? A Monday Night Documentary?”
When I lived in Wisconsin, I had a large, hairy housemate named Brian who watched a lot of hockey and football on TV. Sometimes he’d even do so shirtless to avoid stains from marinara sauce. It turns out that, unbeknownst to me at the time, he’d seen thousands of documentaries and was something of an expert on them.
Wait—what? Quoth Gregory Currie, in his prominent article on the category: “game shows turn out to be documentaries about their participants, chat shows documentaries about the interviewer and interviewees, and sports programs documentaries about the activities of the athletes” (294).
That just seems wrong. Like Brian, I enjoy watching sports broadcasts. But it would never have occurred to me that when I watch a game on TV—say, on Monday Night Football (MNF)—I watch a documentary. And it’s not just Currie’s theory of documentaries: equally prominent takes by the likes of Noël Carroll and Carl Plantinga are also committed to the result that sports broadcasts are documentaries about the activities of athletes, albeit for different reasons than Currie and (unlike Currie) without explicit recognition of that result.
In my paper “Are You Ready for Some Football? A Monday Night Documentary?” I try to figure out what was behind my hunch that Currie, Carroll, and Plantinga are making a mistake, and what to do about that. (It’s a bit ironic, given that title, that I don’t really watch football any more. Something about the monetized suffering of young, mostly Black men gets to me.) I got thinking about the categorization practices that are out there in the real world. These can be misleading or ill-informed, but they’re still important data to be reckoned with. And the data are pretty decisive against Currie, Carroll, and Plantinga. Nobody who isn’t an aesthetician with serious antecedent theoretical commitments goes around saying that MNF is a documentary or that my old housemate is a documentary aficionado. When TV scheduling guides divvy up programming into categories, they don’t lump sports broadcasts in with Shoah (1985) or An Inconvenient Truth (2006). When networks market sports broadcasts, they don’t hire Hank Williams Jr. to welcome all his rowdy friends over for a Monday night documentary.
It’s telling as well that we’ve already got a well-established category of true sports documentaries—which includes works like Hoop Dreams (1994) and Senna (2010). When experts do things like list the best sports documentaries, that’s the kind of film they refer to: they never refer to actual games that were televised.
If Currie, Carroll, and Plantinga are right, then literally everybody else has it wrong, and while that’s possible, it seems pretty unlikely.
The theories of Currie, Carroll, and Plantinga have substantial differences among them, but each lacks the resources for ruling sports broadcasts out of the documentary category. If I’m correct that this is a significant problem, then avoiding it will require raising a new condition that restricts the scope of documentaries. So what should get added?
In my article, I consider a few options.
- It’s a matter of quality: documentaries are better than sports broadcasts (Currie tries that one out himself). This won’t do. Documentaries can be terrible, and sports broadcasts can be great.
- Documentaries are narratives, and sports broadcasts aren’t. Problems with this suggestion include the definite possibilities that sports broadcasts are narratives and that some documentaries (e.g., those that do nothing beyond presenting arguments) aren’t.
- Sports broadcasts are live and documentaries aren’t. Now we’re getting somewhere. Unfortunately, however, sports broadcasts are rarely live in a strict sense of the term (viewed at exactly the same time that the game would appear to you if you were actually there), because of broadcast delays, both intentional and unintentional. Plus, mere rebroadcasts of games or clips thereof posted retroactively on YouTube don’t miraculously transfigure them into documentaries.
That’s not a documentary about Maurice Clarett saving a national championship for Ohio State.
- With these eliminated, I think that what any good theory of documentaries should involve is the notion of accounts. That’s a technical term I define in the article. I’ll spare you that business here, but if you like to see stuff with six clauses and notation like “E1…En ,” go check it out. Come for the formal definition, stay for the dad jokes. Suffice it to say that accounts are interpretations of events and the agents involved in them, which are then put together into some kind of sustained treatment based in records (e.g., film footage) about those events. That’s not the only thing that documentaries do, but it’s vital.
Sports broadcasts, I hold, aren’t primarily made to deliver accounts. They’re primarily made to provide fans with the best, quickest epistemological access to games. Fundamentally, sports broadcasts are just documents—displays of games—not documentaries.
“Ah ha!” you might exclaim, at this point. “What about all the account-like stuff that goes on in MNF? Aren’t there all manner of interpretations, contextualizations, and analysis going on that come from the announcers and producers? Pratt, you’re going to end up counting sports broadcasting as a documentary after all!” Well, not quite. First, the word “primarily” in the paragraph above does a lot of work. The primary function of MNF isn’t to provide you with this stuff. It’s to show you the game. Second, it’s entirely possible for an account to be what we could call a “documentary part of a non-documentary.” That happens, for the record, at the end of Schindler’s List (1993), when the footage shifts into color and we see real Holocaust survivors, accompanied by actors who played them in the movie, paying their respects at the real Oskar Schindler’s grave.
And it happens in MNF too. The halftime show is largely an account. It’s a part of the broadcast. But it’s not enough to make the whole broadcast primarily an account.
It might also have occurred to you that shows like SportsCenter on ESPN are primarily accounts, but don’t seem like documentaries. Quite right. I’m not claiming that being primarily an account makes something a documentary (a sufficient condition), but rather that being primarily an account is necessary, or at least central to the documentary category.
There’s a lot more to be said about the role that being an account plays for documentaries, and in my article, I say a lot of it. But this is a blog post, short and sweet. I’ll leave you with a final thought. Lots of commentary on documentaries cites but doesn’t do all that much with John Grierson’s pioneering claim that a documentary is a “creative treatment of actuality.” “Creative treatment” has a distinct resonance with the notion of “account” I’m pushing. Maybe Grierson was on to more than is sometimes recognized.
Notes on the Contributor
Henry Pratt is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Marist College. Aside from general problems about artistic value, his research ranges over popular arts including but not limited to comics, film, music, and beards.