Broadcast History: The Small Screen View

Article excerpt

Television is constantly accused of using its entertainment prerogatives to subvert and trivialize political discourse and public understanding of social issues. At its best, it is a medium that can educate by giving viewers visual exposure to places and things in ways lectures and texts cannot. In spite of this, much narrative and analysis ends up on the cutting room floor. Recent television work makes claims for a superior presentation of History. Are these approaches really innovative? Or are they examples of old wine in new bottles?

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THERE Is a public hunger for knowledge of history, and broadcasting is rising to the challenge of feeding this appetite. The History Channel evolved largely by proffering biographies of the famous, documentaries on twentieth-century warfare, and sagas on the evolution of Hollywood's entertainment industry. The CBC's construction of a national narrative in Canada: A People's History was hotly debated, with most professional historians decrying the results. The recent success on four continents of Simon Schama's A History of Britain is perhaps the most salient example of the trend. Its influence is so pervasive that even the most text-bound British historians are being forced to take note because of the impact it will have on their incoming students. Schama is now making two more series for international consumption, one on art masterpieces, the other on interconnections between British and American history.

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Schama is the most prolific and prominent member of a growing cadre of historians who have decided that television is "the genre of the age" and who are appealing to its audiences. Nor is their commentary confined to performances before a studio camera in the manner of Oxford's tweedy A.J.P. Taylor, whose early television lectures in the 1950s made him a professional renegade. Niall Ferguson extols the virtues of Britain's imperial project in a series that has been framed as a personal voyage of discovery by ship and plane to sites in India, Australia, and North America. David Starkey specializes in biographic treatments of Tudor royalty. He provides his acerbic commentary from windy ruins, spectacular country houses and old libraries. Scenes with costumed actors silently reconstructing key moments in the protagonists' lives give his narratives additional texture.

In their peregrinations, these historian hosts wear casual clothes and handle ancient texts and artefacts. Their commentary is punctuated with camera shots of them alighting in airports or sitting in coffee shops pondering their area of concern. Each broadcast has a larger audience than an individual academic could achieve over an entire teaching career. Additional "outreach materials"--such as illustrated books, DVD packages, and interactive live web discussions with the historian--can expand the viewer's experience beyond the broadcast. The justification media historians give for their adoption of these new media is that they are trying to redress what "Hollywood" has done to History.

IT is a truism that Hollywood has simplified our sense of the past. One result is that it has diminished the value of the individual to think for himself in opposition to received opinion. It blithely shows actions without consequences. Its scenarios provide instances where the right people often survive violence while the morally degenerate perish. Cinema proffers elisions, guesses, and tissues of invention because to represent the past well is an enormous challenge that few will contemplate. Hollywood does not provide knowledge of what it is to be a complex human being because it refuses to engage with complexity. Rarely do films dealing with history take into account the differing mentalites of past centuries. American directors have made films concerning the two world wars that had little reference to the realities of the period. …