From the new issue of Realscreen: Marking milestones

As the History Makers conference continues in New York, realscreen provides a look at how various networks will commemorate two major historical anniversaries taking place this year: the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, and the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
January 27, 2011

(pictured: The Civil War)

9/11: Ten Years After

One of the first projects announced that will mark the solemn anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is The Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero (w/t) which sees Discovery Channel and the Science Channel teaming up with DreamWorks Television and KPI Productions. The documentary event, with Steven Spielberg serving as EP and creative advisor, will follow the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site in New York City.

“We’ve always been engaged as a network about the subject of 9/11 since that horribly tragic day,” says Discovery Channel’s Stephen Reverand, SVP development & production, East Coast. “[For] something as special as the 10th anniversary, we wanted to take it to a new level.” He says the chance to collaborate with “one of the finest filmmakers of our time, Steven Spielberg, seemed like a very good match to tackle a very difficult and emotional subject.”

Kristine Sabat, KPI’s SVP production, says The Rising will document both the technology and innovation needed to convert the 16 acres at Ground Zero into a feat of engineering and design as well as the people behind the rebuilding process.

For the past year, KP”s crew has been on site filming, with green Discovery hard hats, obtaining security clearances after days of safety training.

“Everyone (here) says that this is the most amazing project we’ve ever been involved with and we’re all very honored to be able to bring this story to life. The emotion behind it is so strong that it just changes the game as far as what this project is,” says Sabat.

National Geographic Channel will anchor its anniversary programming with Towers Productions’ Inside 9/11. The two-part documentary remains the highest-rated show of all time for the network, and is Nat Geo’s anchor for 9/11 coverage. NGC’s executive vice president of global programming, Steve Burns, refers to its content as “an emotional wallop’ and says that each year it is broadcast, the doc is updated to include the newest information on the attacks and the rebuilding effort. Other 9/11 programs in Nat Geo’s catalog include Giuliani’s 9/11 and Witness: DC 9/11, which took a look at the sometimes overlooked attack on the Pentagon.

As for History, viewers can expect to see a re-broadcast of the Emmy Award-winning documentary 102 Minutes That Changed America, from Siskel/Jacobs Productions. History’s head of development and programming David McKillop calls 102 Minutes “the gold standard of 9/11 programming” and says it will be at the core of History’s commemorative approach to the milestone, in addition to new programming.

New specials will include Voices from Inside the Tower, produced by Darlow Smithson Productions. The UK prodco was also the team behind the 9/11 docs Falling Man (2007) and Phone Calls from the Towers (2009), for Channel 4.

McKillop says more special programming commemorating “that awful day” will be announced. “With the 10th anniversary coming up, it’s an enormous commitment to do something special,” he says.

The Civil War: Epic Examinations

On January 3, PBS kicked off the year with two ‘American Experiences’ specials which focused on key figures of the Civil War. American Experience: Robert E. Lee examined the life of the leading Confederate general of the Civil War, and the following week saw the rebroadcast of American Experience: Ulysses S. Grant, which looked at the military leader of the Union army and 18th president of the U.S.

In keeping with the importance of the milestone, the American public broadcaster will also revisit Ken Burns’ epic documentary The Civil War over five nights in April. First airing on PBS in 1990, the groundbreaking series became a benchmark for historical programming practically immediately and received both widespread acclaim and a huge audience, with 40 million tuning in for its initial airing.

“I really do believe it is the definitive work on the subject and is the yardstick that any other Civil War documentary is held up against,” says John Wilson, senior vice president and chief TV programming executive of PBS.

Burns, however, has something to say about the “definitive” tag that is often given to his documentary opus.

“One doesn’t do a ‘definitive’ anything,” offers Burns. ‘There’s no way that, even in 11-and-a-half hours of film, you can come close to containing it.

“What you hope to do is what Lincoln did in his Gettysburg address,” he says. “The featured speaker on that day was Edward Everett, and he spoke for two and a half hours. Lincoln then spoke for two minutes. The [key] process of art in any form is distillation.”

While he hesitates to call it definitive, he will admit to taking pride in the series that he says has continued to impact his output to this day. “Like [having] a child, I love it. It’s a pretty accurate barometer of where I was as an artist 20 years ago,” he says.

The new airing of The Civil War will mark the first time it has been on PBS’ schedule since 2002, and Wilson hopes that it will gain new audiences. “It’s been a generation since it [originally] aired so I think there are folks who remember it well and want to come back to it again,” he says. This airing may not be the last we’ll see of the series. With another Civil War anniversary due in 2015, marking the end of the conflict, Wilson says PBS will mark that milestone and jokes, “I think I’ll use The Civil War again.”

National Geographic Channel’s Civil War focus comes in the form of a three-hour event, The Civil War Project (w/t), produced by UK-based Wide-Eyed Entertainment. “We want to have a contemporary series following people who are passionate or in some way connected to the stories from the Civil War,” says NGC’s Burns. “We’re going to reveal these traumatic five years in American history through the eyes of ordinary people.”

Michael Mavretic, NGC’s director of development says The Civil War Project tells stories of both common soldiers and the everyday people of the time.

The project will also incorporate stories of slaves in the war and the roles they played, as well as the doctors who amputated dozens of limbs on the battlefield. It will also cover the stories of the individuals ‘left to manage farms and homesteads with all of the men having been pulled off for the war and still having to survive, as well as dealing with their land turning into battlefields,” says Mavretic.

Nat Geo will complement the special with programming from its inventory, covering subjects including Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley.

For History, the Civil War has been “part of our DNA since the day we launched,’ says David McKillop. “We have a big four-year commitment to apply a lot of the techniques we’ve learned through some of our other programming [to what] we’re going to create specifically for the Civil War.”

While McKillop wanted to keep his cards close to his chest regarding specific show titles, he did allow that History will have a big event piece on Gettysburg, which he promises will be both “spectacular” and “surprising,” and programming about the “two iconic men that define the Civil War,” Generals Lee and Grant.

Some of History’s own original series will also have tie-ins to the Civil War, including Modern Marvels, American Pickers and Pawn Stars. In addition to the programming, History will also promote a national educational initiative.

“The Civil War has to be one of the pivotal moments in our history, the closest we’ve come to having the nation fall apart,” McKillop says. “There’s a lot of area to explore [for] a very entertaining and visceral experience.”

For more from the January/February 2011 edition of realscreen, click here.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.