Broadcast History

By Purcell, Hugh | History Today, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Broadcast History


Purcell, Hugh, History Today


Hugh Purcell argues that the increasing popularity and sophistication of television and radio history makes broadcasting the boom medium for learning about the past.

EARLIER THIS YEAR THE HISTORY CHANNEL had the simple idea of inviting viewers to send in family photos of historic value. Over 7,000 responded and the best results are being shown both on television and in a national exhibition, in over 150 libraries round the country and in a book. In April the BBC broadcast a series on industrial archaeology, Fred Dibnah's Industrial Britain. Nearly three million people watched it; 20,000 rang for more information, over 80,000 received leaflets and 450,000 hit the specially created website. Two trickles from what is rapidly becoming a torrent. There is, now, a colossal interest in history and this is being stimulated, aroused in many cases, by an unprecedented quantity and quality of history programmes on television and radio.

It is impossible to quantify the amount of history programming. When does history become `current affairs'? It is partly a question of semantics. One is reminded of the academic who said modern history was `little more than journalism with foot-notes' anyway. But there is far more of it about than ever before. A few figures will prove the point. The History Channel on cable and satellite was launched only four years ago in Britain, yet its audiences now average 30,000 per hour (bear in mind that the best selling history book Stalingrad by Antony Beevor has sold in hardback about 10,000 copies) and this audience has increased by a third over the last year. Its similarly named parent company in the USA has a phenomenal 56 million subscribers; the fastest growing cable and satellite broadcaster in the land. BBC TV recently opened a specially dedicated area, The History Zone, on Saturday evenings and the audiences average over 2.5 million, twice what they were in the same slot before. Finally, over the millennium, the BBC is broadcasting no less than fifteen new radio or television history series of factual programming, not to speak of drama or natural history or single programmes in this area. Then, of course, there are the new interactive history websites that back up these programmes.

To old hands like me (I have been producing history on radio and television for about thirty years) the variety of this new output is hugely exciting. Archaeology is back; ancient and medieval history are more popular than they once were; leisure history is all over the place (the History of Gardening for example); family history is coming and the staple diet of modern history, biography and war, is more popular than ever. It simply is no longer true that there is a broadcasters' bias towards twentieth-century history, because that happens to encompass the history of film and of living memory too.

Tim Gardham, the Director of Programmes at Channel 4 and the first editor of BBC TV's regular history programme Timewatch, thinks:

   The connection between past and present is changing. It's our job at
   Channel 4 to be in the vanguard, to pick up shifts in culture and I am sure
   that there is a shift in people's sense of history away from the tumultuous
   events of this century to a longer perspective. In part this is due to the
   end of the Cold War that conditioned our thinking about so much of the
   century and in part due to awareness of the millennium.

Gardham attributes criticism from the universities published recently in History today that new undergraduates lack a broad knowledge of history before the twentieth century to out-of-touch examining boards, not television. There is absolutely no evidence, he says, from viewing figures that medieval or ancient history is any less popular than twentieth-century history. But he admits that broadcasters only recently realised the `leverage of history', the potential of imaginative formats and scheduling: an observation shared by Laurence Rees, Head of History at the BBC. …

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