Looking back, it’s safe to say that UK-produced history programming was booming in 2000. Producers were tapping into newly available technologies and creating innovative ways to tell stories from the past – and they were drawing big audiences. But, as quickly as programs started to illustrate history with expensive dramatizations (such as Elizabeth), impressive CGI recreations (like the BBC’s Pompeii) and reality-style formats (Wall to Wall’s 1900 House), some producers and broadcasters began to sense the market had become oversaturated with cheaper reproductions, and disillusioned audiences began to disappear.
Now, six years later, both terrestrial broadcasters and producers are looking at different approaches to bring back the excitement. Thing is, the broadcast landscape has changed somewhat. Consider ITV’s recent move to shutter its Bristol-based history office for what a channel spokesman called ‘commercial reasons.’ Granted, the corporate ups and downs at this top UK terrestrial have been well documented over the past few months (from an attempted buyout last year by Greg Dyke to its chief executive Charles Allen’s departure this past summer), and the broadcaster appears to be reorganizing its priorities in order to stay alive in the competitive British market. But it is telling that ITV’s history department was one of the first items on the chopping block.
Like most British producers, Anthony Geffen, EP at London-based Atlantic Productions, plays down the affect of ITV’s departure from the history scene, saying producers in the UK have known for a while that the broadcaster was looking for more commercially viable one-offs, such as last November’s The Gunpowder Plot. (The program used CGI to recreate Guy Fawkes’ plan to blow up the British Houses of Parliament.) ‘ITV was really only known for its sensational history telling,’ says Geffen.
But this development does reduce the number of available commissioning opportunities for local producers, who must now look for more innovative ways to break into fewer broadcasting hours. Mark Fielder, executive producer at Bristol-based Quickfire Media, admits there has been some tailing off in commissioning, and that broadcasters are increasingly interested in reaching broad audiences with iconic topics that can carry the show. ‘In a way, I think that’s a dangerous thing,’ says Fielder. ‘It tends to limit the range of programming that can be made, as well as the potential of a story.’
Although he hasn’t been scaling back on commissions, Ralph Lee, history commissioning editor at Channel 4, says he’s stripping back on some of what he calls ‘clichéd approaches to history,’ such as dramatic recreations, which have been underfunded and under-realized in the last three or four years. He’s still eager to work with dialog-driven drama, but only in larger form where money is spent on the acting and the scripts so it’s created ‘at a level where it isn’t embarrassing.’
But he’s also falling back on some of the more traditional ways of doing history: C4′s recent broadcast of Niall Ferguson’s War of the World series, for example. It’s a hosted program, but gives a more controversial look at 20th century violence. (It played during peak time, and generated column inches in British newspapers.) The channel is also in development with the British Museum of History to create a hybrid game show/history program, Codex, where contestants are challenged to discover clues in the museum to solve a mystery. ‘We’re still interested in creating events around history,’ says Lee.
But will viewers tune in? Producers and broadcasters say the audience numbers still exist for large-scale, big-budget history productions with international partners, but mid tier may be in jeopardy. Atlantic’s Geffen says terrestrials are in a new mindset. ‘They say: ‘Let’s make it really big, let’s have fresh research, let’s have it original, but we want to be coproducers because we can’t afford to pay for it,” he says.
For BBC’s John Lynch, who runs the science and history studios, his audience would love to have more elements of British-focused history, but his department can only afford to do it at a certain level. ‘If you want to do high-end dramatizations, you need coproducers in spades,’ he says. Lynch adds that he wants to look further into the Elizabethan era, but it may not play into the scheduling plans and audience interest of financial partners in places like France, Germany or America. Self-financing does happen but, as Geffen suggests, it’s fragmented. ‘The high end is still there and, in my view, it’s getting better, but the middle has fallen out. The cheap will always be there because there will always be cable outlets happy to buy 50 of anything and bung it out in the middle of the night,’ he explains.
And even when a show is lauded as original, large and fresh, the audiences aren’t what they were in 2000. Although it’s just one example, Quickfire’s Fielder points to the experiential Viking Boat Race, produced by Diverse and Otmoor Productions for Channel 4. The special featured rowing crews from Oxford and Cambridge pitted against each other in a 350-mile open sea jaunt from Denmark to England in two replica longships. Fielder says this was a great example of experiential history with a bold approach, but according to the figures he saw, the special scored about one million viewers. Not bad, but not what it could have been. ‘There’s a real concern that a show that’s imaginative in its approach didn’t engage the audience right away,’ he says.
Producers are now looking to rev up the industry even more to save the mid tier from disappearing off primetime skeds. One way is to amalgamate history with other genres. Earlier this year, the BBC moved both its science and history production departments under Lynch’s purview, and although it will still produce the programming as two separate genres, future specials now in development will likely be influenced by each other’s approaches.
Recent history is also an emerging trend the producers suggest may capture audiences, going back to Atlantic’s look at Munich: Moscow’s Revenge from the events at the 1972 Olympics, to C4′s Lee’s interest in looking at history as recent as 20 years ago. ‘I think the 1980s are the new history in the way the previous generation was interested in the ’60s. I’m interested in the ’80s and how the modern world was utterly transformed then,’ he says. And, of course, the benefit of recent history is that it provides more genuine documentary footage with which to work. That may help rejuvenate the recent strand of low-budget, wallpaper dramatizations that are leaving audiences giggling rather than informed.