restricted access Television as Historian: An Introduction
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Special Introduction | Edgerton Cary Edgerton Old Dominion University Television as Historian: An Introduction History on TV is a vast enterprise, spanning commercial and public networks, corporate and independent producers. As we rapidly approach the close of the 20th century, a significant increase in historical programming exists on television screens throughout the United States, mostly in the form of biographies and quasibiographical documentaries, which coincides with a marked rise of interest in history among the general population. This introduction will explore some of the parameters and implications of "television as historian," briefly discuss the four essays included in this first of two subsequent issues on this featured topic, and end by previewing the four remaining essays yet to come in the next edition of Film & History. My first and most basic assumption is that television is the principal means by which most people learn about history today. TV must be understood (and seldom is) as the primary way that children and adults form their understanding of the past. Just as television has profoundly affected and altered every aspect of contemporary life - from the family to education, government, business, and religion - the medium's nonfictional and fictional portrayals have similarly transformed the way tens of millions of viewers think about historical figures and events. Most people, for example, recall the Gulf War and the major individuals associated with that conflict through the lens of television, just as their frame of reference regarding slavery has been deeply influenced by TV mini-series, such as Roots (1977) and Africans inAmerica (1998), along with theatrical films, such as Amistad (1997), which characteristically has been seen by more people on TV than in theaters.1 Second, history on television is now big business. There are over 100 broadcast and cable networks in America alone, and roughly 90% of these services resulted from the dramatic rise of cable and satellite TV over the last 25 years. Scores of cable networks have become closely identified with documentaries in general and historical documentaries in particular for two main reasons: Nonfiction is relatively cost effective to produce when compared to fictional programming (i.e., according to the latest estimates, per-hour budgets for a dramatic TV episode approximate $1 million while documentaries average $500,000 and reality-based programs Vol. 30.1 (March, 2000) | 7 Edgerton !Special Introduction $300,000); and, even more importantly, many of these shows which have some historical dimension are just as popular with audiences as sitcoms, hourlong dramas, and movie reruns in syndication.2 Fifteen biographical programs are currently thriving on U.S. television, for example, with a half-dozen more already in preparation.3 Most of these existing series are also among the most watched shows on their respective networks. The forerunner and acknowledged prototype is A&E's (The Arts and Entertainment Network ) Biographywhich averages a nightly viewership of nearly 3 million, spawning videotapes, CDs, a magazine called Biographywith a 2 million readership, and a newly launched all-biography channel. The index ofhistorical (and contemporary) individuals and couples featured on Biography, from Thomas Jefferson to Jackie Robinson to Pocahontas and John Smith to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln is sweeping and diverse. At the same time, this series typically relies on highly derivative stylistics which are a pastiche of techniques borrowed from TV news, prime-time dramatic storytelling, and PBS nonfiction à la Ken Burns. All told, A&E's Biographyis a representative example ofhow history is often framed in highly conventional and melodramatic ways on TV, mainly to be marketed and sold directly to American consumers as a commodity. Third, the technical and stylistic features oftelevision as a medium strongly infìuence the kinds of historical representations that are produced. History on TV tends to stress the twin dictates of narrative and biography which ideally expresses television's inveterate tendency towards personalizing all social, cultural, and for our purposes, historical matters within the highly controlled and viewer involving confines of a well-constructed plot structure. The scholarly literature on television has established intimacy and immediacy (among other aesthetics) as inherent properties of the medium.4 In the case of intimacy, for instance, the confines of the relatively smaller TV screen which is typically watched within the privacy of the...