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Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 37.1 (2007) 35-42

Frontier House:
Reality Television and the Historical Experience
Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska
Brown University

Most television audiences view the genre of reality television primarily as entertainment and amusement. Millions of viewers tune into programs such as Survivor, The Apprentice, and The Bachelor because of the excitement, the unexpectedness, and the twists and turns that are taken each week. While reality shows are no doubt entertaining, this genre has also been adapted for educational purposes. PBS's Frontier House, a six-part program that aired on affiliate stations in 2002, combined the reality genre with the educational documentary that is the hallmark of public television programming.1 This hybrid genre was effective because its combined components of reality and documentary addressed different objectives in the narrative of the program. While the meticulously researched documentary features established the program as a legitimate and accurate historical account, the reality portion—in which present-day families attempted to live in the manner of 1883 frontier settlers—allowed the participants, as well as the audience to examine and negotiate their own beliefs about the myth of the Old West and contemporary American life.

Public Television and the Documentary Genre

PBS was brought into existence by a 1967 Act of Congress with the aim of television for a common good with overt educational and informational purposes. It has been described as "a vehicle to bring quality, diversity and public interest goals to all Americans." 2 Over the years, the network has strived to inform and teach its audience through programs that are vaguely academic in nature. Because of its non-commercial format, PBS funds its operation and programming with contributions from viewers, as well as federal and corporate grants. The non-commercial aspect of public programming further reinforces the educational mission and ideology of public television; without advertisers, the programming found on PBS is seen to be less about entertainment and more about pedagogy.3

Perhaps the most prominent genre of programming on PBS is that of the documentary, as exemplified by such shows as Ken Burns' American Experience, the award-winning cornerstone of PBS stations. Burns, a historian and filmmaker who addresses topics ranging from jazz, to baseball, and the Civil War, is considered by many the foremost documentarian in the contemporary United States. Typically tracing the experiences of historic individuals through photographs, diaries, artifacts and other primary evidence, Burns uses the documentary genre to depict portraits of historic American life. His documentaries exhibit a mélange of primary evidence combined with the expertise of prominent historians, and many view the programs as a paradigm within the genre.4

The documentary genre itself is one of the oldest in television. With its reliance on visual evidence, expository narration, and the authority of experts, it presents itself as an authoritative and accurate voice, an informed portrayal of its subject. Paula Rabinowitz states that the contemporary documentary "claims its status as a truth-telling mode…which provokes its audience to a new understanding about social, economic, political, and cultural differences and struggles."5 The documentary, unlike most other televisual genres, is based directly on actual experiences and events, and purports to offer a depiction of them. With its emphasis on "true" characterization and education, the documentary seems well-fitted to public television and its stated mission of "public interest goals." 6

However, there are also dangers that are inherent within the documentary genre's "conceit of the real." The documentarian and scholar Jill Godmilow, referring specifically to the work of Ken Burns, critiques the filmmaker for using "documentary as a kind of national therapy, producing a kind of mourning moment, a nostalgia for the past." This critique, with its emphasis on the problems of a history imbued with patriotism, is reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche's characterization of "monumental history," a history that resembles a "mythical romance."7 The idea of a biased telling of history is further expounded by Walter...


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