What Keeps Social Documentaries from Audiences–and How to Fix the Problem

January 2004

Report by:

Pat Aufderheide,
Co-Director, Center for Media & Social Impact, American University

With funding from:

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation


Welcome to the report and background documents on how to extend the working lives of social documentaries. This project, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, began with the question, “What happens to social documentaries after a brief television airing?” It went on to a series of case studies and a convening of experts in the business of making and distributing social documentaries. The result was an analysis and set of recommendations on how today’s market could be improved to make social documentaries far more accessible to the many people to want to use them.

Below you’ll find links to the full report, as well as to some of the background documents that inform it.


View or download the full reportĀ here


Ephemeral for no good reason: the waste of documentary and independent films

By Rick Prelinger

The wide availability of inexpensive and user-friendlier production tools has finally brought us closer to the long-deferred dream of mass moving image authorship. But while many (though not all) obstacles to production have crumbled, distribution problems are escalating.

Answers to Common IP Questions for the Independent Documentary Filmmaker





By Jessica Mickelsen

To help relieve some of the attendant burdens and potential expenses that could incur for failure to comply with intellectual property clearance, the filmmaker should thoroughly and scrupulously explore available clearance alternatives.

Johnston and Snider, “Breaking the Chains



In recent years, the sluggish telecommunications industry has been buzzed by the wild-fire success of “Wi-Fi”–a technology that uses license-exempt spectrum to allow many users to share a single high-speed Internet connection on a wireless basis. Hotels and coffee shops are turning into “hot spots”–and campuses and public spaces into wireless “hot zones.” Now, this low-power, inexpensive technology has advanced beyond Starbucks to connect thousands of rural and suburban consumers–farms, small businesses, home-schooling families and others–offering an affordable solution to the “last mile” problem. But is Wi-Fi just the tip of the iceberg of the unlicensed wireless revolution, or is it the iceberg itself? If it is just the tip, then much or all of the rest of the “last mile” (or last 40 miles) can also be freed from its wired and government-licensed chains.

Larry Daressa, “Is Social Change Media a Delusion?”

This essay therefore suggests a shift in the way we think about social change media – not as discrete texts but as part of a wider context. It substitutes for our present media-centered paradigm an audience-centered one where the passive media consumer is addressed as an active citizen and the anomic audience as an engaged community. The paper concludes with a concrete, “twelve-step program” to link social change media integrally to a reinvigorated civic sector.