In 1978, actress-director Lee Grant visited a group of female bank employees who had gone out on strike in Willmar, Minnesota. Two years later, she completed a documentary about their plight called The Willmar Eight. In 1984, Grant directed another film on the same subject: not a documentary, but a docudrama for NBC Movie of the Week.
The availability of two programs directed by the same person and dealing with the same factual event provides the scholar, critic and producer/filmmaker with an unusual opportunity to compare the structure, form, and content of both documentaries and docudramas. Even more important, we can now see what happens to the "news" when treated in these different formats, and what effects they have on viewers -- and how viewer experience affects their perceptions.
The author designed a study in 1985 to examine differences between the two media versions of the Willmar bank strike and to determine the differential effect of the films in terms of their credibility and their impact on audience opinions about job discrimination against women in the work place. Those surveyed ranged from participants in an Elderhostel weekend (age 55-86) to traditional college students at both a large public university and a selective private undergraduate liberal arts college.
Analysis of the results revealed a number of tendencies that seem characteristic of the docudrama form. In the transition from fact to entertainment fare for television, several things change. In this particular instance, (1) the docudrama grew in length; it is more than twice as long as the documentary on the same subject; (2) the title was changed (to A Matter of Sex in order to have greater appeal to the potential mass audience); (3) the production cost vastly increased for the docudrama as compared to the documentary; and (4) there were major changes in the manner in which the subject was presented for the television audience.
The docudrama used actors to recreate key events and to heighten dramatic conflict as the story unfolded, whereas the documentary relied heavily on static interviews with some of the actual participants -- talking about events they experienced (for the most part) at an earlier time. There also was a shift in the central focus of the program from the lives of two individual strikers, which stressed one character's perseverance and another's marital happiness. One can see a shift in emphasis from "theme" to "plot," which, in the docudrama is greatly elaborated by the introduction of other sub-plots and new characters. For example, additional villains were created and dramatic detail was allowed for greater character development, audience identification, tension and suspense.
In the docudrama, the spouse of a young woman striker is added to the cast, someone never seen or even spoken of in the documentary. The relationship between these two people, seen from the day of their marriage (depicted under the opening titles of the made-for-TV movie) to its ultimate dissolution well into the program, became a major focal point of the drama -- and consumed almost a third of the total running time.
Other differences between the two versions of this "true story" included the use of music and humor, the role of the filmmaker herself in the picture, the outright contradiction of certain factual details revealed in the documentary, and the withholding of information about sympathy for the women's cause (probably designed to create a more one-sided picture of community opposition to the strike and strikers). This less ambiguous view of events allowed for the audience's easier identification with the heroines, and a more readily stereotyped picture of the banker and other antagonists within the drama.
Of much greater import to the social scientist is the effect these changes seem to have made on audience perceptions, attitudes, and opinions about the subject matter. Which is more believable? Which is more persuasive? The data suggest that viewer age and life experience are significant variables in shaping how such programs influence audiences. Other things being equal, the older the viewers and the more "real world" experience they have to compare with what they see on television, the less likely they are to be influenced by events they see in the dramatized version of the story. The order of exposure to the two films also played a crucially important role in determining the degree to which events seemed "real." For older, more worldly, people who saw the documentary first, the docudrama seemed phony, melodramatic, and drawn out. But when the dramatized TV movie was seen before the documentary, many younger viewers with less varied life experience found it to be more believable, more real, more "true to life," and more convincing than the reality on which it was based.
Comments by such viewers included statements like:
"...the movie is more story-like and therefore a lot more interesting. We can relate to the people as real."
"In the end the audience is pleased and happy for the victory and can relax knowing all is well." (Note: In actual fact, the strikers lost their legal action and only one ever was reemployed by the bank -- in a demoted status.)
"The scenes are more convincing because they can be done over and over until they are just right."
Clearly, what is "just right" for that viewer has as its reference point the "realities" he learned from television. Like many of his peers, he has come to judge "real life" in terms of how closely it conforms to what passes for life on TV. Even when shown the actual people and events (in the documentary) after seeing the docudrama, such viewers are inclined to be unimpressed; to retain their belief that the TV drama is more real, more lifelike, and more true to what they have been conditioned to believe is reality...as they have come to know it from television.
This is a frightening conclusion. It is particularly alarming when we read that more and more people now regard television as the most credible medium for news. One can only surmise how much this belief -- and associated values -- carry over when news events are presented in the guise of drama. It is clearly an area much in need of greater attention.