An attempt to be constructive

Over at Interpreting the Civil War, John Rudy argued that some of us history bloggers were too hard on the makers of The History Channel‘s Gettysburg special, and urged us to remember that Civil War specialists and hardcore enthusiasts were not the show’s intended audience.  He raises some good points.

I do, however, want to clarify one matter.  When I criticized the show’s “gritty and modern” style, I was referring to the fact that it made Gettysburg seem like a twentieth- or twenty-first-century battle, not to the fact that it depicted the ugliness of combat.  What I meant was that the cinematography and the restricted focus on small groups of men moving in fairly loose formations seemed more appropriate for a modern war film than a Civil War film. Looking back at my post now, I can see that I didn’t express this very well.

In fact, I think that depicting the ugly side of combat was one of the things the show got right.  I’m all for putting the horrors of war front and center,  Indeed the last museum exhibit that I scripted back when I did that sort of thing was devoted entirely to graphic photos of dead Civil War soldiers.  I just didn’t think the Black Hawk Down-esque “combat photography” style was the best approach for a documentary on the nineteenth century.  It just looked…off, somehow.

While I disagree with some of John’s specific points, his broader point is valid.  Popular documentaries must cast their nets wide when it comes to audience.  This doesn’t lessen the need for scrupulous accuracy—if anything, I think it magnifies it—but it does mean that filmmakers don’t cater exclusively to us history aficionados.

Like all public historians, history filmmakers have a daunting task before them.  As we’ve started working on the historical travel TV segments that I posted about back in April, I’ve learned how difficult even the simple logistics of production can be.  I still stand by my numerous and frequent criticisms of The History Channel, even though they’ve been among my most snark-ridden posts.  But in recognition of the fact that it’s a lot easier for me to lob those shots over a keyboard than it is to actually produce programming, I offer here some suggestions for The History Channel.

You can think historically while thinking broadly at the same time.  One of the biggest turning points in the study of history has been the explosion of brand new fields of studying the past.  Anything is fair game these days—the history of childbearing, the changing relationships between people and the environment, the history of commemoration, the history of food.  You can be as creative in framing your shows as historians are in framing their subject matter.  Indeed, the network has done this in the past, with specials on the history of everything from comic books to sexuality.  I would urge the network to think historically and creatively at the same time.

Don’t be afraid to think big in terms of scope.  Some of the network’s best offerings have been those occasions when they’ve bitten off a bug chunk of history to tackle.  Their miniseries on life in the Third Reich was as fine as some of the best documentary material being produced for television, and the recent miniseries on the American Revolution was also quite good.

You can be historically relevant while still indulging your current programming style.  If we must have reality shows, why not try to make them a little more historical in content?  How about a series chronicling the struggles faced by the staff of some historic house museum, instead of a family-run pawn shop?  Or a series that follows a few reenactors around as they practice their hobby?  Why not chronicle the lives of battlefield park rangers instead of taxidermists?  Are taxidermists really that much more interesting than public historians?

In the name of all that is good and decent, cut the flying saucers loose.  Give up on the aliens, conspiracies, and cryptozoology.  It’s bad enough to be irrelevant; it’s much worse to be counter-productive by providing a platform for outright claptrap.  If I want to watch something that will make my brain cells shrivel up like raisins, I can always flip over to E! or Bravo.

Use the unique tools at your disposal in ways that cater to their unique strengths. Here’s an example.  The History Channel loves its computer generated maps and imagery.  Okay, fine.  How about a show or a one-shot special that looks at historic or well-known places and then uses CG to depict how these places have changed over time?  A televised version of landscape archaeology in cities, around landmarks, or at historic sites would fit the medium to the content, instead of employing bells and whistles just for the sake of doing so.

Choose your talking heads wisely.  The celebrity interview segments in America: The Story of Us added absolutely nothing to that program, besides (I assume) some hefty appearance fees.  In this age of Google and Linkedin, it’s not that hard to find qualified commentators.

Use your ability to draw an audience for the greater good.  The “Save Our History” effort is praiseworthy, and could be expanded beyond the occasional special.  There are more than enough endangered sites out there to make for a regular series.

Of course, I doubt that anyone who’s in a position to re-direct the network is reading this, and I doubt even more that they’d care if they did read it.  In terms of raw numbers, business is evidently booming at The History Channel.  I think the shift in the network’s program indicates how little the folks running it are concerned with the opinions of history buffs.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “An attempt to be constructive

  1. When I criticized the show’s “gritty and modern” style, I was referring to the fact that it made Gettysburg seem like a twentieth- or twenty-first-century battle, not to the fact that it depicted the ugliness of combat. What I meant was that the cinematography and the restricted focus on small groups of men moving in fairly loose formations seemed more appropriate for a modern war film than a Civil War film. . . .

    In fact, I think that depicting the ugly side of combat was one of the things the show got right. I’m all for putting the horrors of war front and center, Indeed the last museum exhibit that I scripted back when I did that sort of thing was devoted entirely to graphic photos of dead Civil War soldiers. I just didn’t think the Black Hawk Down-esque “combat photography” style was the best approach for a documentary on the nineteenth century. It just looked…off, somehow.

    Yes, this concerned me from my first viewing of the trailer. It’s engaging, but also very modern. It simply didn’t feel right.

    I presume this was shot somewhere in central California; why they couldn’t do it in a more suitable location in the eastern U.S. — where they presumably could also round up far more reenactors — I don’t know.

    For all the use of CGI in the show, much of which I though was very good, they didn’t use it where it could have been put to greatest use, in recreating PicketPettigrewLongstreetLeeCulpepperFoghornLeghorn’s Charge on the third day. That event was, in most interpretations, the tactical and dramatic climax of the battle, but in the show it looked like what it was — a few dozen reenactors running back and forth in a California field, augmented by CGI animations of tons of flying, nondescript “grit.”

    And where was Little Round Top? I understand not wanting to talk about Chamberlain — he’s been done to death — but the fighting on and around Little Roundtop was crucial to the outcome of the entire battle. But here it’s not shown at all, and barely mentioned in passing.

    Almost makes you whistful for Ron Maxwell. Almost.

  2. Michael Lynch

    I heard they filmed it in South Africa, but I’m not sure if that’s true or not. You’re right about the Pickett’s Charge sequence–you could tell they only had a few guys marching around.

    –ML

  3. They might not read this, but I wish they would. Seriously, you should send this to them. If they followed even one of these suggestions, there would be massive improvement. And, taken altogether, you’ve just written them a perfect plan for turning that ship around. I love the idea about reality TV focused on historians. Running a local historical society, I have my own “Pickers” moments more often than they might guess.

    Really, I’d just be happy if they’d get out of the Bayou. What is with this swamp obsession and how is that historical??

    • Running a local historical society, I have my own “Pickers” moments more often than they might guess.

      Ah, yes. The my-wife-wants-this-out-of-the-house-so-you-should-take-it phenomenon.

      Yeah, I don’t miss that. ;-)

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