It’s all just history repeating

After polling ten commissioning editors of historical programming for the hard facts about budgets and broadcast hours, RealScreen turned the tables and allowed them to wax poetic on what they want for their outlets, what they're tired of, and what they...
December 1, 2000

After polling ten commissioning editors of historical programming for the hard facts about budgets and broadcast hours, RealScreen turned the tables and allowed them to wax poetic on what they want for their outlets, what they’re tired of, and what they can’t seem to find. The results suggest a need for shorter formats, reveal that World War II is overexposed, and call for the exploration of new regions to source unknown subject matter and fresh archive images.

ARTE, France & Germany

Thierry Garrel, ARTE France’s head of documentaries, believes historical docs should provide viewers with more than just a good story about something that happened in the past. ‘We always try to link history to a better understanding of present times,’ he explains. ‘[Historical docs] are not aired just for the nostalgia of seeing old images – even if we take old skeletons out of the closet.’

To this end, ARTE’s main history slot, ‘Les Mercredis de l’Histoire’, explores 20th century history and concentrates mainly on the last 50 years. Airing at 8:45PM, the program challenges the line that distinguishes current affairs from history. According to Garrel, the acquisitions budget for the slot averages around FF150,000 (US$20,000) per hour. For coproductions with European companies, the budget ranges between FF500,000 to FF650,000 ($65,000 to $85,000) per hour. ‘It depends if we take one run or two runs,’ he adds.

For the 60-minute format, Garrel favors docs that approach stories from a fresh perspective. ‘We don’t only want to show political history, but also the history of mentalities – how people behaved,’ he says. ‘We want to grasp history from all sides, either through a personal approach or by concentrating on a very particular moment in history that acts as a microcosm through which a more complex question can be understood – anything that enhances the audio-video language and renews storytelling, gets people interested in history they didn’t know they were interested in. Run-of-the-mill productions create a shallow involvement for the viewer.’

Historical docs 75 to 90 minutes in length air in the ‘Grand Format’ slot, Friday at 10:15PM Garrel says docs in this slot must be ‘films that take a unique approach to their subject matter.’ Garrel isn’t obligated to fill a quota for programs that originate in a particular geographic location, so to accommodate broadcasting in both French and German, dubbing (for ‘talking heads’) and subtitling (for dialog) are used. Although the language track may vary between the French and the German versions, the visual content of a program is never altered.

Unique programs require unique footage and Garrel notes that the dearth of docs dealing with de-colonization (a topic he believes is a major issue for Europe) is due to political restrictions and censorship as much as economic constraints. Budget issues are, however, an ongoing concern, especially when dealing with archives. ‘We need more money to make films using archive material because the costs are developing at an incredible pace,’ says Garrel. ‘We are obliged to think of programs on more than a national level when using archives. You have to go international to finance a project because of the economics involved. You can’t make a low-budget history film.’

DR TV, Denmark

Attracting viewers below the 55-plus crowd to historical programming is a challenge for most broadcasters. However, according to Hanne Lindemann, international television acquisitions executive of DR TV, younger viewers are catching on. ‘I think there is a need for historical programming now and in the future, because it seems that young people are becoming more and more interested in knowing about the past,’ she explains. ‘It’s also important to find topics beyond World War II. History is a broad area and a great challenge in itself.’

DR TV – one of two national public service broadcasters in Denmark – acquires around 36 hours of historical documentaries each year. These air in set, primetime slots. Also, approximately 16 hours of history programming is produced in-house. Feature-length docs are rarely acquired, says Lindemann, as one-hour docs are the accepted format. The hourly budget for acquisitions is about US$3,500. Lindemann acquires factual history programs from across the globe.

Histoire, France

Chantal Knecht, head of acquisitions and coproductions for Paris-based broadcaster Histoire, is at a loss to explain why French producers aren’t creating enough historical profiles to meet her needs. ‘There are a lot of social programs, but there are no profiles,’ she says. ‘I have to look for this kind of program abroad.’ Specifically, Knecht is looking for projects that investigate important people from less explored corners of the world. ‘In Europe, we don’t know anything about South American leaders of the last 50 years. We have a lot of profiles of Hitler, Stalin and Kennedy – which are very popular – but for big leaders in Africa, South America and Asia, there are few projects.’

Knecht shares a complaint expressed by many that programs of any kind that go beyond Europe, America and the two World Wars are in short supply. ‘We know about the United States, England, Canada and countries like that, but it’s very difficult to find the history of the Danish royal family, for example,’ she explains. ‘There are little things like that for every country.’ Knecht likes national history as told by a native of the country in question, but she cautions against producers with hidden agendas: ‘You have to be careful with countries like China because they have a certain political view that isn’t far from propaganda. It could be the same with royal families,’ she adds, laughing.

Histoire broadcasts around 700 hours of documentaries per year. There are two main slots that both run at 60 minutes, but Knecht says she accepts programs that are 26 minutes, 90 minutes and two hours in length. ‘Encyclopedies’ airs Saturday at 9:00AM and 10:00AM and focuses on the history of arts. Programs for this slot are usually series of 10 to 15 hours. ‘Les Dossiers de l’Histoire’ broadcasts Wednesday at 10:00AM and features 20th century history. Both series and singles are accepted. This year marks Histoire’s first foray into the copro arena, although the majority of programs will continue to originate through acquisition. For the year 2000, the channel’s budget for both acquisitions and coproductions was FF20 million (US$2.6 million).

Profiles are not the only format proving elusive for Knecht. ‘What I don’t see enough of, but would like to, is game shows for history,’ she says. ‘I know these are expensive and I haven’t seen many good ideas, but it’s something that should be done.’ Perhaps she would like to use a life line and ask the audience?

The History Channel, International

The History Channel went international in November 1995 when it launched in the U.K. in partnership with British Sky Broadcasting. Since then, the channel has established franchises in Spain, France, Germany, Scandinavia, Israel and the Middle East, Turkey, Australia, Japan, China, Latin America and elsewhere. According to Michael Katz, VP of programming and production, international division, A&E Television Networks, the majority of the content for these partners originates through the U.S. channel. Despite the vast differences in cultures, the programs have few problems crossing borders. ‘The product that comes out in North America travels exceedingly well,’ says Katz. ‘We strive to make our programs universal – they do not take a strong political, social or cultural point of view.’ Due to the international structure of THC, Katz says the U.S. arm tries to obtain as many rights to its history docs as possible.

When translating scripts, Americanisms are exchanged for the vernacular of the country in which the program will air. The editorial content of a program is not changed, but a presenter is occasionally added to bring a local or cultural perspective to the subject. This is the case in Japan, but Katz feels Asia still presents very specific challenges to the broadcaster. ‘Most of the documentary product at our finger tips is European-based,’ he explains. ‘There is a need to do more Asian-based programs, but there has not been a huge tradition of that kind of product in the region and that is going to be a challenge for us.’

Katz hears the international partners complain that there’s a plethora of contemporary history on the market, but very little ancient history. Consequently, Katz feels this is an area ready for exploitation, but warns against the difficulties inherent in the subject matter: ‘To make the program content on these shows the most accessible it can be, you want it to be visually interesting. Dealing with subjects before there was photography, much less moving photography, is a big challenge. It’s one that can be met, but in the past it’s been expensive to do. With computer technology and CGI becoming more affordable, this kind of production will become more available.’

According to Katz, some of the History Channel’s more established international partners – such as the U.K. and Latin America – are beginning to initiate programming either for or around thc’s branded block. La Chaine Histoire in France buys approximately 70% of its programming from A&E and about 10% from independent producers (the remaining 20% is culled from various sources). ‘We don’t do copros yet, but I’m hoping to start next year,’ says Christel Vidal, editorial manager for La Chaine Histoire. Vidal is looking for five to 15-minute pieces, as well as programs that present events, such as the Cold War, from a non-American perspective.

Affiliates are in charge of their own programming budgets, but Katz explains that each is given the help it requires. ‘They have to make their own choices as to how much of their resources are put into acquisitions, copros, pre-buys or in-house productions.’

The History Channel, U.S.

The October launch of History IQ punctuates The History Channel’s push for younger viewers, aged 24 to 45 years. Produced by Dana Calderwood and Mike Klinghoffer, the program – which airs daily at 7:30PM – is a 30-minute quiz show that pits three contestants against each other in competition for a US$25,000 cash prize. Susan Werbe, VP of historical programming for The History Channel, U.S., sees programs such as this as the future of factual historical programming.

‘We are trying to be more interactive,’ she explains. ‘History IQ allows viewers to play along on the Web. [Also], during This Week in History, viewers are asked a polling question and the result is posted at the end of the hour. We have found this to be a great success, because we can see the hits on the Web go way up.’ thc also teamed up with online auctioneer eBay in September to produce History’s Lost & Found Auction Block, which airs during the ‘History’s Lost & Found’ slot in a new, daily, half-hour format weekdays at 7:00PM. During the program, viewers not only learn about found artifacts, they can bid on them online via eBay.

Werber also refers to This Week in History as an example of the network’s effort to move towards multi-segmented formats and a more personal approach to history. ‘This Week in History takes events that may seem familiar and finds a person who played a role in them. History is then told from that person’s perspective,’ she says.

Primetime slots still reflect thc’s standard 60-minute format and Werber assures these will remain a key part of the schedule. Among these, ‘The Most’ (Friday 8:00PM) looks at incredible disasters and battles, ‘Suicide Missions’ (Sunday 8:00PM) investigates perilous occupations, ‘Modern Marvels’ (Monday to Thursday 10:00PM) explores science and technology, and ‘History Undercover’ (Sunday 10:00PM) deals with politics and espionage. The majority of the channel’s programming originates through acquisitions, although commissions and copros occasionally arise.

NHK, Japan

The language barrier between Japan and the rest of the world presents a hurdle for broadcasters and producers. As a result, the Japanese TV market has long remained elusive to foreign producers and insular to native ones. Preparations for the December 1, 2000, launch of NHK’s 24-hour digital HDTV channel have begun to change half of this equation. Although the Japanese pubcaster still shops for the majority of its programs nationally, the scheduling demands of a new 24-hour channel have caused NHK to look further afield for relatively inexpensive programs that embrace HD. Enter docs, among which historical subjects are no exception.

Apart from the HD format, NHK is looking for historical programming that offers an interesting point of view and is grounded in reliable research. NHK acquisitions exec Daisuke Hiraoka explains: ‘Our criteria for seeking programs is whether the program seems interesting and suitable for our Japanese viewers. From this viewpoint, we are not looking for programs that are sensational and lack full coverage or truth. That concept does not change whatever the genre is. In addition, Japanese viewers seem to be especially interested in archeology.’

According to Fumina Koike of NHK, the broadcaster does not initiate commissions directly from proposals received from foreign producers. ‘The best way for producers in Europe and the United States to get

commissions from NHK is through our affiliates, NHK Enterprise Europe in London and NHK Enterprise America in New York,’ she explains. ‘We use our affiliates to eliminate the difficulties of time difference and language. They gather the proposals within the region and recommend proposals to NHK. We usually do not pre-buy programs but we are very active in acquisition and coproduction.’

Although Koike reveals that NHK produces 80% to 90% of its programs in-house, Hiraoka points out that there is room in the schedule for non-HD historical docs acquired outside of Japan. ‘Foreign Documentaries’ is a regular 44-minute slot that focuses on documentaries made by foreign producers. ‘Saturday Premium’ is an irregularly aired culture and education theme slot in which NHK tries to broadcast approximately 15 historical programs per year.

Koike says the pubcaster rarely engages in pre-buys, preferring instead to acquire or coproduce programs. Although Koike couldn’t be specific about budgets for historical documentaries, she estimates the upper limit is around US$1 million. In 1999, NHK’s total expenditure on program production and transmission was about US$458 billion. One-hour specials or series of two to four episodes are preferred.

History Television, Canada

The approving nod given by Oscar to films based on true stories (think Shine, The Hurricane, Boys Don’t Cry) is proof positive that fact is often more intriguing than fiction, and sometimes a good story needs two hours to be told properly. Sydney Suissa, VP of programming for Alliance Atlantis’ History Television, recognizes this and makes room for features in the channel’s schedule (which otherwise favors a 60-minute format). Preferring to showcase feature films outside of the channel’s regular strands – usually on a Sunday night – Suissa often tries to build an event around them to attract viewers.

Although he doesn’t set ceilings on budgets, preferring to decide on a proposal and then proceed to the budget, Suissa is careful about what he feels merits a feature. ‘My license is within a certain range and it can’t go beyond that, even if [a film] has a much bigger budget,’ he explains. ‘I pay within a certain range and producers can use that to trigger other funds.’ Suissa estimates the budgets for the channel’s current features fall between CDN$350,000 and $750,000 (US$230,000 and $490,000).

Outside of feature docs, Suissa commissions within four main subject areas, which are reflected in the channel’s primetime programming stands. Monday night’s ’20th Century History’ slot focuses on the era’s key events.

On Tuesday, ‘Ancient History’ explores archeology, anthropology, and cultural history; and on Wednesday ‘Canadian History’ looks at… Canadian history. Thursday night, History Television battles for viewers with ‘Military/War History’. Each of these slots air two 60-minute programs from 9:00PM to 11:00PM

Approximately five to 25 hours of international copros are initiated each year, but the channel’s requirement for Canadian content means Suissa only gets involved in international copros he can include as ‘Can-con’. He explains: ‘You always need a Canadian production company and they need to be involved in certain creative parts of the project and some production. It doesn’t have to be a Canadian story and, in fact, that’s very rare.’ In addition, Suissa commissions about 120 to 140 hours of original programs annually (which can qualify as Canadian content) and acquires another 200 to 300 hours (non-Canadian content) of historical docs.

Looking into the future, Suissa feels the main challenge for both broadcasters and producers is an economic one. ‘If you want to do quality history, it’s expensive,’ he says. ‘If you start to calculate the cost of archives, travel, cinematography, research… If you’re dealing with naval history, you need the right ship, the right sail, the right flags. To do it right, so that it feels honest and reflects truly the time, it’s very expensive. I think that’s the ultimate for both producers and broadcasters – to try to keep the production quality high. That’s the only way we get viewers. You’ll get viewers watching crap once, but they won’t come back.’

Historia, Canada

Despite the fact that French-Canadian specialty channel Historia is only approaching the tender age of two, programming VP Jocelyne Lavoie is confident of the channel’s personality, needs and goals. ‘We want things that will touch the viewer,’ she says. ‘We don’t want productions based only on archival material. We want a point of view. We want people to feel, after watching a documentary, that they’ve learned something.’

In line with the channel’s official – and ambitious – mandate to ‘know everything about history’, Lavoie seeks programming that offers viewers the opportunity to gain new perspectives. ‘We must strike a balance between established historians and young blood,’ she says. To this end, a new slot titled ‘Dynasties Rouge’ was created this year to bring Historia’s audience a better understanding of communism by providing a platform for the debates and history that surround this controversial political philosophy. The slot airs Thursday at 8:00PM and Lavoie hopes it will continue to introduce fresh material.

The Saturday/Sunday 8:00PM primetime slot ‘La Face Cachée de l’Histoire’, which looks at secrets of the past, was also designed to introduce controversial topics. Although Lavoie only accepts docs produced in a 60-minute format and prefers series to one-offs, this slot provides space in the schedule to showcase unique, single documentaries.

Over the past year, Historia broadcast 250 to 300 hours of historical docs. Of these, 25% were commissioned and 75% were acquired. When considering dollars, however, these percentages reverse themselves – 25% of Historia’s programming budget goes to acquisitions and 75% to commissions. The CRTC (Canada’s regulatory body) requires 35% of the channel’s broadcast hours be Canadian content. Lavoie fills the remaining 65% with product originating from the U.S. (approximately one third of the 65%) and Europe (about two thirds). Historia is a French-language channel, but docs that originate in French are not given preferential treatment. ‘The origin of a documentary isn’t important in itself, the theme of the film is,’ states Lavoie. Historia produces around 60 hours of dubbing each year.

Lavoie is conscious of the danger specialty channels face of becoming repetitive. To avoid this, she seeks out programs that utilize the unexpected. ‘In history, there is a lot of production on wars and conflicts, and we really want to go to another level. We don’t want to be a War and Peace channel,’ she explains. ‘It’s important that documentaries use new kinds of production, such as computer graphics and 3D animation. It’s important for us to have young viewers and to incorporate new kinds of production, but it’s primarily a matter of what you have to say and what the best way to express that is.’

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.