Box Populi: Charlotte Crow Reports a Recent Debate between Historians and Programme Makers on the State of History on the Small Screen, and a Television Success in That Field

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'THE FAILURE TO DEAL WITH IDEAS in history programme making is a monstrous failure on the part of the industry', historian Tristram Hunt told delegates at the annual World Congress of History Producers in London in November. He was contributing to a feisty debate, 'Does Television Enhance or Diminish History?', organized for the Congress by History Today (having first asked our readers the same question via our website and discovered that 28 per cent of you believe that television does diminish the subject).

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The international gathering of more than 400 television producers, history specialists and broadcasters assembled to discuss topics such as 'Documenting Genocide', the use of CGI, trendspotting in history programme making, and the challenges of documenting Islam. They also took the opportunity to meet commissioning editors and broadcasters, and to discover the state of the market for history programmes, which some in the industry speculate has now peaked.

Hunt, who has himself just completed The Protestant Revolution, a four-part series on the Reformation to be shown on BBC4 shortly, was sharing the 'academic' side of the fence with David Cesarani (Royal Holloway), Ann Gray, Brian Winston (both of the University of Lincoln) and History Today editor Peter Furtado.

On the opposite side were the TV history specialists, Dunja Noack (Granada), Richard Melman (History Channel), Mark Starowicz (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and Taylor Downing (Flashback Television). The two sides were in turn expertly provoked and restrained by Dan and Peter Snow, the latter in control of a custom-made 'swingometer', which he gamely used to gauge audience reactions.

The question 'Is TV History too focused on entertainment?' prompted Hunt's accusation. Other academics bemoaned the reluctance of programme makers to handle historiography: 'everything must be driven by one line of argument' (Winston), pointed to budget restraints and the 'tyranny of dramatization' played out in ill-conceived reconstructions (Cesarani), and warned against underestimating the sophistication of audiences well used to enjoying the labyrinthine plots of soap operas (Gray).

The programme makers responded that television history is a 'different part of the historical family', one that is best suited to telling 'dramatic and human stories', and that these, in the opinion of Mark Starowicz, made an invaluable contribution 'to human understanding', 'helped particularly to encourage an empathy for the enemy [whoever that may be]' and 'to a shared sense of humanity'.

Richard Melman, Channel Director of the History Channel UK, made his position clear: 'I run an entertainment channel first and foremost, which happens to be based on history: in the most competitive marketplace in the world, the critical objective is to get eyeballs'.

Taylor Downing pointed to a diversification in television history in the last ten years that has broadened and enriched the genre. He celebrated the move away from a purely archive-based format, to one making imaginative use of graphics, dramatization and formats. …