Changing tides: what to watch for in history programming

As the annual History Makers conference kicks off in New York today, realscreen talks to five history programmers about the firmly entrenched trend towards reality-based titles, and their key dates and priorities for this year and beyond. (Pictured: the upcoming Titanic: Case Closed)
January 25, 2012

As TV schedules become increasingly packed with pickers, pawners, truckers and restorers, it could easily be assumed that the classic historical documentary – namely a straightforward program detailing a past event – is itself at risk of becoming, well, history.

With a host of big U.S. networks having moved increasingly in the direction of “living history” – reality-style shows that follow people doing jobs in some way related to the past – over the last half decade, broadcasters’ demands for how traditional historical titles are made and presented have also changed.

Indies that previously focused on making archive-packed, talking head-filled, presenter-led fare have had to either change the way they work, or lose their positions to prodcos that are more comfortable and adept at bridging the reality divide, such as Leftfield Pictures or Original Productions.

“There’s always been an appetite for entertaining storytelling,” says Adrian Wills, general manager of factual for UKTV, the British network which boasts factual channels including Yesterday, Home, Really and Eden.

“I don’t think you can dress up Ice Road Truckers or Deadliest Catch as ‘living history’ – they’re factual entertainment, and it’s absolutely fine that broadcasters use these types of shows to drive high-volume audiences. They’re effectively an entry point for viewers who we hope will come into a wider range of shows.

“Where the appetite has changed is that there is now less tolerance for traditional authored pieces with a middle-aged man speaking directly down the lens. Producers and broadcasters need to find new and exciting ways of telling stories without being too worthy – insight is great, but it’s secondary to a compelling narrative.”

He adds that what matters most now to commissioners is “the way the stories are told,” explaining that for his net, “content needs to be fast-paced, possibly with an air of mystery or an element of discovery. We want our viewers to be entertained by exciting stories, which means there is now less room for traditional World War Two stories featuring lots of personal testimony.”

Wills’ viewpoint is echoed by David Royle, exec VP of programming and production for U.S. broadcaster Smithsonian Networks. “Audiences have become more demanding, and it’s necessary to tell a truly compelling story that is visually strong, and full of real drama,” Royle says. “It’s also important to utilize CGI and other innovative ways to add a new perspective.”

While Royle says “it’s hard to argue with the ratings success of shows such as Pawn Stars and Deadliest Catch,” he adds that by integrating these new perspectives into a documentary approach, Smithsonian’s aim is to “make ourselves a destination of choice for history fans.”

The use of CGI Royle talks about will be particularly apparent in April, when the network marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking with Titanic: Case Closed (pictured above), a 90-minute special from Bedlam Productions – the company behind Oscar-winning drama The King’s Speech – and Airborne TV & Film, which is set to air in the U.S. under the title Titanic’s Final Mystery.

The doc was jointly commissioned with National Geographic International Channels and promises to explore the real reasons behind the famous ship’s catastrophic collapse.

Among the other notable dates on the network’s calendar, “we’ll be marking the anniversary of [Osama] Bin Laden’s death in May,” says Royle. “Also, we wouldn’t be the Smithsonian if we failed to pay tribute to the Space Shuttle by marking the one-year anniversary of its last flight and its arrival at the National Air & Space Museum in April.”

Royle calls the Darlow Smithson-produced Space Shuttle: Final Countdown “a fascinating film that merges aviation history and science.”

As for the Titanic, look for many other networks around the world to mark the 100th anniversary of its sinking. Wills says UKTV will mark the centenary in April “with a couple of shows,” as will French public broadcaster France Télévisions.

Adrian Wills, Dirk Hoogstra, Laurent Flahault, Sarah Jane Flynn and David Royle

Laurent Flahault, France Télévisions’ commissioning editor for acquisitions and international coproductions, says that the French network is currently on the hunt for “big programming specials on commemorations and turning points,” citing a biographical special that aired last year on Muammar Gaddafi as one of the network’s top historical draws.

Programming should be “popular, very visual, comprehensive, revelatory and entertaining,” with producers advised to “focus on commemorations” while adopting a “very accessible approach explaining the historical context and showing what the implications are today,” he adds, warning that titles should not be “too narrow or too male-targeted.”

For France 5, over the last year the channel has been using a Sunday slot to air programming focused on big events and turning points of the 20th century. Among the best performing titles, says Flahault, have been A+E Networks productions America: the Story of Us and 102 Minutes that Changed America; the Nat Geo coproduction The Egyptian Job; and the BBC2 documentary The Last Nazis: Children of the Master Race.

In addition to the Titanic centennial, France Télévisions will be looking for programming to air in 2012 tying to the Russian and U.S. elections, and the 50th anniversaries of the death of Marilyn Monroe and the end of the French-Algerian war.

Meanwhile, over in Canada, Sarah Jane Flynn, senior director of factual content at History Television Canada parent Shaw Media, says that of the key anniversary dates for her network, “we’re excited about the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.”

She adds that 2013 will be “the tip of the spear of the World War One anniversaries, which will start to hit at 2014. For the War of 1812, we haven’t yet scheduled what we’ve got, as there are a bunch of different battles, so we’re figuring out when to start and how to roll it into 2013.”

Like her peers at Smithsonian and UKTV, Flynn says that methods of storytelling have changed, and as such, History Television is “not interested in ‘stock and talk’” anymore: namely, docs consisting primarily of stock footage and talking heads.

“We are looking for big observational documentary series because they do well,” she explains. “We’re also potentially looking for a competition or a game-based show, and we’re looking for host-driven series – and by ‘host,’ I mean people who are actively engaged in a historical pursuit.”

Heading south of the border, the U.S. network that many credit with really spearheading the move towards “living history” – A+E’s History – is still focused, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the type of programming that is bringing in the kinds of ratings that have propelled it into becoming a top five cable network.

For Dirk Hoogstra, History’s senior VP of programming and development, the net’s key shows now really fall into two categories: “artifactual shows,” such as Pawn Stars, American Pickers and American Restoration; and “American originals,” such as Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men and Swamp People.

Despite the reality elements prevalent within the above mentioned shows, Hoogstra says that the key element within both categories is that “when you’re looking at a world that you didn’t know existed, there’s an enormous amount of information that you get from that.

“Our viewers, while being entertained first and foremost, are always at some level looking for some sort of insight and some sort of takeaway; some sort of context,” he explains, “and we have to have that DNA – that History contextual DNA – within our programs for them to be successful.”

Hoogstra adds that the big message that he is attempting to convey to producers on an almost daily basis is that “now is the perfect moment to stop trying to mine the territories that are currently working” for the channel and try to find something else.

“Don’t try to emulate or do something that’s a tiny little dial change from what we currently have,” he insists. “Bring me something that’s going to feel really different.”

Additional files by Barry Walsh

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.