Tag Archives: The History Channel

The History Channel and the Scott brothers are taking on Gettysburg

Somebody associated with The History Channel has asked me to inform you of an upcoming program which premieres at the end of this month.  Since it’s a show about honest-to-goodness history, I think it deserves your attention:

Gettysburg is a 2-hour HISTORY special that kicks off a week of History programming commemorating the 150’th anniversary of the Civil War.

Executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, this special strips away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War. It presents the pivotal battle of Gettysburg in a new light: as a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience, fought by men with everything on the line. Compelling CGI  and powerful action footage place viewers in the midst of the fighting, delivering both an emotional cinematic experience and an information packed look at the turning points, strategic decisions, technology and little known facts surrounding the greatest engagement ever fought on American soil.

The special begins in the high stakes summer of 1863, as the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia crosses into Pennsylvania. Trailed by the Union’s Army of the Potomac, Lee’s 75,000 strong army heads towards Harrisburg, converging instead near a quiet farm town, Gettysburg.  Known then only as a crossroads where ten roads running in all directions converge like a wagon wheel, this small town would become site of an epic battle between North and South.  For three days, each side fought there for their vision of what America should be.

In collaboration with highly esteemed Civil War historians, HISTORY combed through hundreds of individual accounts of the battle to find the unique voices of struggle, defeat and triumph that tell the larger story of a bitterly conflicted nation.

The Scott brothers are both exceptional filmmakers, and this looks like it’s going to be a high-end production.  Have a peek.

Gettysburg premieres May 30 at 9:00 EST.  It should be well worth watching, so check it out.

They also offered me some t-shirts, notebooks, and messenger bags to either keep or pass along to you guys as reader giveaways, but I did the virtuous thing and said no.  Given all the snark-ridden vitriol I’ve written here about The History Channel, it just didn’t seem right to take their stuff.  I do have some scruples.

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Take the Past in the Present April Fool’s Day Challenge

First of all, I’ve been sick for days with no end in sight.  Prescriptions, confinement to bed, Vitamin C, all to no avail.  Not fun.

Second, in the spirit of the current holiday, here’s a short exercise in discernment.  I’m going to give you three increasingly improbable scenarios, all of them somehow relevant to the sort of thing I usually post here.  Your task is to determine which, if any, of them are April Fool’s Day hoaxes that I just made up out of the recesses of my twisted mind.  I’ll give you the correct answers at the end of the post.

Of course, you could just Google these one at a time, but because I have such trust in my adoring faithful, we’ll do this on the honor system.  Besides, there are no prizes other than the smug satisfaction of a job well done, so it’s not like there’s anything at stake.

Ready?  Here goes!

IMPROBABLE SCENARIO #1: The History Channel will premiere a new series this month devoted to the workings of an Alaskan taxidermy shop.  The promotional copy describes it as a sort of Cake Boss with moose carcasses, in which we can witness “the real process of what it takes to preserve natural history–on a deadline, and always for a demanding client.”

IMPROBABLE SCENARIO #2: Until just a few years ago, a Baltimore museum exhibited what was reportedly Abraham Lincoln’s last bowel movement.  It was recovered from a chamber pot at Ford’s Theater and mounted in a frame, along with an old manuscript attesting to its authenticity.  An analysis of its contents revealed traces of Necco Wafers.

IMPROBABLE SCENARIO #3: Past in the Present—the little history blog that could, which you are now reading with your very eyes—has been picked up by a television station to become an educational/travel series.  A camera will follow your intrepid blogger as he travels to various historic sites and interviews the folks who work there about why these places are significant and what visitors can expect to see.  Filming hopefully starts this summer.

So how many of these astronomically unlikely situations are true, and how many are April Fool’s Day hogwash?  I’ll give you some time to mull this over.

Okay, here are the answers.  Try to contain your excitement.

SCENARIO #1: This one is true, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who’s been watching The History Channel‘s gradual descent into madness.  The show is called Mounted in Alaska, and it premieres in less than a week.

The first time I heard the title, I thought it was about Anchorage cavalry reenactors.  Come to think of it, that would make a pretty good show, too.

SCENARIO #2: Get ready to pick your lower jaw off the floor.  This one is true, too, although the museum in question apparently closed in 2007.  Even the bit about the Necco Wafers is real.  While the artifact undoubtedly existed, Roadside America claims that it wasn’t really Lincoln’s, since Necco Wafers first hit the shelves in 1912.  The manufacturer, however, states that the wafers have been in production since 1847, when Lincoln was in Congress, so maybe it was the genuine article after all.

It would be fun to try to track the provenance of that thing, and even more fun to present the results at a conference.  Any of you researchers out there who’d like to commit career suicide should tackle this one.  Let us know how it goes.

SCENARIO #3: I didn’t make this one up, either.  Today the blogosphere, tomorrow the world.  Fortunately, I’m not the person to blame for all this.

A good friend of mine is a program manager at a TV station owned by the same university where I’m an adjunct.  They do a number of original shows that broadcast throughout northeastern Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky.  For reasons that he’ll probably come to regret later, he decided to pitch the idea of a show similar to the historic site visit reports that I post here from time to time, and his colleagues thought it was a good idea.  We’re planning to do about six episodes, each one built around some similar historical theme or region, where we’ll take viewers on a virtual tour of historically important places.

What’s nifty about all this is that we’re going to try to combine the informative aspects of any history-oriented show with the informal tone and atmosphere of a travel show.  Heritage tourism is really popular, but when travel shows tackle historic sites, they don’t always provide the kind of content that history enthusiasts are after.  We’re going to try to offer history buffs enough meat and potatoes to keep the shows interesting, while following an on-the-road format that will hopefully engage other viewers and motivate them to visit these places for themselves.

Anyway, I’ll provide more information about the show as it develops.  In the meantime, if any readers of the blog have suggestions for places or topics you’d like to see us tackle once we get rolling, feel free to pass them along.  We’ll probably be staying in the southeast for this set of episodes, but if it takes off and we end up doing more, then we might venture farther.

Of course, if I don’t get over this bug, then you can box me up and ship me to those guys in Alaska.  We’ll still do the show, but it’ll be sort of like Weekend at Bernie’s.

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History Channel’s gravitas meter drops another couple of notches

Ladies and gentlemen, your new guide across the highways and byways of American history and culture is Larry the Cable Guy.  No reaction yet from the producers of American Experience over at PBS, but I don’t think they’re quaking in their boots.

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The History Channel wants your soul

Steven Anderson is pastor of a small independent church in Arizona.  He’s achieved a kind of online celebrity for his advocacy of proper posture while urinating, his explanation of first-century Middle Eastern pants-wearing, and his desire that President Obama would die of brain cancer.

Now Anderson has taken up one of my own pet peeves, the lack of history-related programming on The History Channel.  I’d assumed it was just a ratings thing, but evidently there is a far more sinister explanation.

They’re brainwashing us.  And Ted Turner, a noted minion of Satan, is somehow mixed up in it.

So I’ve started watching the first season of Ax Men backwards, and sure enough, I distinctly heard a voice telling me to read Origin of Species and then go stomp a puppy to death.

I’ve got a request for Rev. Anderson, on behalf of the rest of us Baptists: Could you either find another denomination or stop posting your sermons to YouTube?  Thanks.

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They’re vérité documentaries, you Philistine

The New York Times interviewed Nancy Dubuc, president and general manger of the History Channel, for a piece on their new “America” mini-series.  The conversation turned to the torrent of non-historical programming that has inundated the network.  Here’s an excerpt:

“The History channel under Ms. Dubuc has expanded what qualifies for its programming lineup, incorporating popular series like ‘Pawn Stars’ and ‘Ice Road Truckers.’ Ms. Dubuc, apologizing for being ‘testy,’ dismissed criticisms that the new shows take History away from its core mission, saying they aren’t reality shows but ‘vérité documentaries on people doing history today.'”

Oh, vérité documentaries on people doing history today.  Now I get it.

That reminds me, there’s a penetrating exposé on age disparities in American relationships that I need to TiVo.

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Talking heads needed–apply within

Despite being buried in work, I managed to catch part of The History Channel’s new mini-series.  “America: The Story of Us” is a panorama of four centuries of the nation’s past, the first time in decades that such a project has been undertaken for television.

It’s a very worthy and ambitious effort, and I’m glad to see the network tackling something like this.  As I’ve said before, The History Channel can turn out some pretty good original programming when they tear themselves away from aliens, secret societies, and lumberjacks.

One thing that puzzled me, though, was the conspicuous absence of historians among the on-air commentators.  For the segment on the origins of the Revolution, the talking heads included Tom Brokaw, Brian Jennings, Colin Powell, Michael Bloomberg, and another fellow identified as a military expert and ex-Navy SEAL.  I’m not referring to the narration, mind you, but to the snippets of unscripted commentary interspersed throughout the program, which usually consists of excerpts of interviews with experts in the subject matter.

I’m sure all these guys are very good at what they do.  In fact, I try to make it a habit not to offend news anchors, former Secretaries of State, mayors, or Navy SEALs—especially the latter.  (One should never offend persons who can open one’s throat with a KA-BAR knife, or who can plant explosive charges near one’s sleeping quarters, if one can help it.)

Still, I can’t imagine why you’d hire a TV news anchor to provide insight during a documentary on early American history.  None of these off-the-cuff remarks cast any real light on the material.  They were the sort of fluffy, vague, sentimental filler that my students tack onto their essay exams when they’ve run out of anything meaningful to say.  Every single interview segment that I saw could have been left on the cutting room floor with no loss whatsoever.

It seemed for all the world like one of those pop culture shows which feature snippets of comedians and D-list celebs commenting on old music videos or offbeat news stories.  They’re on the show because they’re recognizable and because they have the gift of gab, not because they’re bringing any expertise to the table.  Think “I Love the ’80’s” with a different set of eighties.

I hope the series succeeds.  It’s got serious potential, and it’s the kind of large-scale, meaty project that a lot of history buffs would love to see the network do more often.  It seems to me, though, that this approach to on-air talent is a misfire.

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Remind me again which people are speaking

The History Channel recently aired The People Speak, a documentary based on the work of Howard Zinn.  There are many people who would condemn Zinn’s writing for purely ideological reasons, and for that Zinn has no one to blame but himself, since he has worked diligently to keep his scholarship and his activism closely intertwined. 

I think history should inform social and political activity, since it provides the context necessary to understand the way society operates.  However, if you’ve already diagnosed mankind’s ills and devised a cure, as Zinn seems to have done to his satisfaction, then conducting some historical investigation into the subject seems a little beside the point.  What’s the point of asking the questions if you’ve already decided the answers? 

His supporters argue that he gives a voice to the marginalized people left out of traditional history books.  To that I’d ask where these supporters have been for the past few decades.  By the time Zinn published his popular survey of American history in 1980, many scholars had already been engaged in “bottom-up” studies of the past for some time, and with a good deal more diligence and sophistication than is evident in Zinn’s own work.  If his book presented any substantially new information, I’m not yet aware of it, though if some reader out there could correct me on this I’ll gladly make a public note of it.

The strange thing about this film project is that for a movie devoted to the forgotten and marginalized, there seem to be quite a few historical notables represented.

Matt Damon, one of the actors involved, is quoted in some of the online promotional material: “Change doesn’t come from the top, but rather from the bottom.…Without everyday citizens pushing to make a difference, there would be no America.”  What everyday citizen who struggled to initiate change from the bottom does Matt Damon portray in the film?  Congressman/governor/ambassador/cabinet member/party leader/chief executive/planter Thomas Jefferson.  I don’t believe Mr. Damon appreciates the irony here.

By the way, I know Matt Damon is a big Zinn fan, but is he really the most appropriate choice to read the Declaration of Independence?  (Remember this cinematic gem?)

Of course, every thirty minutes The History Channel spends airing this is thirty minutes they can’t spend on this sort of thing, so let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.

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