Interesting times: reinvigorating the history genre

In the January/February issue of realscreen, we talk to Nutopia's Jane Root, History's Nancy Dubuc and BBC2's Janice Hadlow about how the history genre has become revitalized by new approaches to creating historical programming.
February 4, 2010

This article originally ran in the January/February 2010 issue of Realscreen Magazine. For more from that issue, please click here.

As the oft-heard saying goes, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.’ History programmers and program producers point to this sentiment not just to indicate why the genre is important. The thought holds true for the programs themselves. One must remember what mistakes program makers have made in the past so that the new breed of history programming breathes life into its topics rather than the dust from old texts.

BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow presented a lecture at King’s College in London last October, regarding bringing serious history programming to the public. During that talk, Hadlow prophesized that the future of historical programming would be a healthy one. Pointing to the life cycles of program genres, Hadlow says history is headed back into a boom period, perhaps as strong as the one it saw at the beginning of the ’90s. At that time, she says, history became a sort of default genre for many broadcasters, at least in the UK, where programmers would turn to historical shows to fill their factual slots because they seemed to deliver large audiences effortlessly.

When Hadlow joined Channel 4 as head of history, art and religion at the end of the ’90s, the genre was still in its peak period. ‘History was a brilliant subject at that point for Channel 4 because it had a lot of upmarket men who watched it,’ she says. ‘So advertisers liked it as a subject.’

Jane Root was controller of BBC2 when Hadlow was heading up history at C4, and now heads up Nutopia, the prodco behind History’s upcoming 12-part series America: The Story of Us. She recalls the ’90s boom period as a time when producers and programmers were obsessed with archive footage. ‘There was a point in the ’90s when archive felt like the most exciting thing you could possibly do,’ she says.

But then it got to a point where, according to Hadlow, every broadcaster was looking for authoritative histories of various subjects as their key programs and it began to seem as if there wasn’t much new to be said. ‘In a way the genre expanded and expanded until, to some extent, it just got too large,’ she recalls. ‘It’s what the market’s calling a necessary correction, I suppose, and while it never went away entirely, there was definitely less history on television than there had been.’

While history was in hibernation, it gave producers time to reflect on what needed to happen within the genre, and gave the audience time to recover from the over-saturation. Now the tables look to be turning back around again.

‘[History programming is] very much in demand because 2009 was a big history year,’ says Celine Payot, VP sales and marketing at Paris-based prodco and distribution company ZED, which is currently distributing William Karel’s 1929, an examination of the infamous Wall Street crash of the Twenties and its international impact. History is a very anniversary-driven genre, and last year sported a couple of big ones, with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 70th anniversary of WWII.

Aside from the anniversaries, the growing popularity of history programs also has a lot to do with the new techniques producers and networks are using to make the programming palatable to a wider audience. ‘Some of those areas that used to seem like they were quite staid and classic are now becoming revitalized with new ways of doing things,’ says Root. She points to History’s Pawn Stars, a program centered around a family-run pawn shop which also examines some of the old items that come through the shop, and WWII in HD (see page 33), which uncovers hours of never before seen footage from the Second World War.

America: The Story of Us, which is currently in production and due to air in April, is taking a similarly innovative route. The ambitious 12×60-minute drama-doc series will span 400 years of America’s history (and pre-history), looking at the key people, places and events that shaped the nation. Aside from taking an ambitious approach to retelling a people’s history, Root says that what makes a series like America prime programming for this moment in time is the public’s desire to connect the dots between its past and its present. ‘We were starting to work on [America] in the six months leading up to Obama’s election when there was an enormous sense of a lot of people talking about where [we're] going,’ says Root. ‘And they’re still having that conversation.’

History’s president and GM Nancy Dubuc says this is an exciting time to work in the history programming genre because we’re currently living in historical times. ‘In a short period of time we’ve seen history-defining moments and it’s unusual to see that many significant moments,’ she says. ‘So it feels rather natural for people to ask questions about the context of these events.’

Dominique Tibi, executive producer and GM at France-based Roche Productions (producers of the Karel doc), agrees that viewers are looking to add context to their lives. ‘The more we are going to be in complex situations, the more history will be very useful to people,’ says Tibi. Seeing as the economy has been a hot topic, now is a prime moment for a film that examines a similar crisis from the past, and how the world dealt with it then.

Last September BBC2 ran its own program addressing the economy, The Love of Money, which examined the current economic collapse, why it happened and how generations down the line will be affected. Hadlow believes this is the kind of illumination viewers are looking for. ‘When people are looking for some level of understanding of the way the world works and why things seems to be panning out in a particular way, that’s often a moment when history programming becomes more interesting, because people start asking the biggest of big questions,’ says Hadlow.

Consensus is that the key to drawing in new audiences is to make programs that are as much about the present day as they are about the past. ‘People from the past weren’t different people; they were like us but in different settings and facing different challenges,’ says Root.

Dubuc knows about using a modern hook on which to hang a larger story, as her network does just this with programs such as Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars. These programs, according to Dubuc, fulfill the channel’s recent programming strategy to diversify the genre. ‘History programming needs to be innovative because we’re stewards of evolving American’s perception of what history is,’ she says.

For another history boom to take hold, Hadlow says historical programs also shouldn’t be afraid to take the form of more popular television. For example, BBC2′s Victorian Farm, which originally aired in 2008, looked at 19th Century Britain using a present day family put in a fish-out-of-water situation – working on a farm using 19th Century techniques for a year. While it may have been a tough ask to get 3.5 million people to watch a series about farming in the 19th Century, the program racked up those numbers by giving the audience a human narrative to see the story through, and another series of Victorian Farm will be airing in 2010.

Hadlow says that television remains one of the most powerful means of disseminating intelligence, and to do so effectively, smart programming must air in primetime up against more populist programming so that it doesn’t become marginalized. ‘It’s essential that [historical programs] live in the same universe as Strictly Come Dancing, Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor,’ she says. ‘It’s really important that they’re there because otherwise they become a niche interest for the few.’

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.