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o o 3 o Television as Historian A Different Kind of History Altogether Gary R. Edgerton History on television is a vast enterprise, spanning commercial and public networks, corporate and independent producers. As we rapidly enter the twenty-first century, a significant increase in historical programming exists on television screens throughout the United States, mostly in the form of biographies and quasi-biographical 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," propose seven general assumptions about the nature of this widespread phenomenon, and end with some concluding observations concerning the enduring relationship between professional history and popular history as well as the challenges and opportunities this linkage poses for "television and history" scholarship in the future. My first and most basic assumption is that television is theprincipal means by which most people learn about history today. Television 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 ofreference regarding slavery has been deeply influenced by TV miniseries such as Roots (1977) and Africans in America 2 | Gary R. Edgerton (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 one hundred broadcast and cable networks in America alone, and roughly 90 percent of these services resulted from the dramatic rise of cable and satellite TV over the last twenty-five years. Scores ofcable networks have become closely identified with documentaries in general and historical documentaries in particular for two main reasons: (1) 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 $300,000); and, (2) even more importantly, many of these shows that have some historical dimension arejust as popular with audiences as sitcoms, hour-long 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) Biography, which averages a nightly viewership of nearly three million, spawning videotapes, CDs, a magazine called Biography with two million readers, and a newly launched all-biography channel. The index of historical (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 oftechniques borrowed from TV news, primetime dramatic storytelling, and PBS nonfiction a la Ken Burns. All told, A8cE's Biography is a representative example of how 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 stylisticfeatures of television as a medium strongly influence the kinds ofhistoricalrepresentations that areproduced. 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 limitations of the relatively smaller TV screen that is typically watched within the privacy of the home environment have Introduction | 3 long ago resulted in an evident preference for intimate shot types (i.e., primarily close-ups and medium shots), fashioning most fictional and nonfictional historical portrayals in the style of personal dramas or melodramas played...


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