20 July 2007


I was fortunate enough to be able to attend Alliance Atlantis' final staff party last week. I was expecting a smallish affair, but was blown away when I walked in the door. There were (I was told) some 600-odd people there. Which, upon reflection, really shouldn't have come as a surprise, since Alliance Atlantis is a pretty darn large company.

And that makes the fact that it was the last such party all the more sad. It only dawned on me on the day of the party that, by January 1st 2008 at the latest, Alliance Atlantis will cease to exist. Many of the more than 600 employees have no idea what the future holds for them. Kind of like me. So I felt even more like part of the group that night, the fear and trepidation about the future gripping more than just me.

I've been thinking a lot about what I'll do come September, when I'm no longer a paying member of the academic community. Where does an historian fit into the film and television industry? Does an historian have any place in this industry?

WAAAYYY back in the late 1980s (remember those days, when the neon we wore was matched in tackiness only by the size of women's bangs?), the American Historical Review dedicated an entire issue to this very topic. There are some useful points made by some of the contributors, such as the need for historians to understand how a motion picture actually, practically comes into existence. This back door entry into the film and tv industry is likely going to be the best way for me to have an impact as an historian.

The ethics of public history notwithstanding, a lot of historians look down on works produced and aired on History Television and the like. Part of the disdain, I believe, lies in a perverted sense of the medium in which I now operate. Historians are not, generally, trained to study moving pictures the way they are the written word. The two are very different, yet many continue to apply the same standards and rules to both, which is where things break down.

Perhaps, if I can keep my own standards up, and constantly remember what it is that I think is important in history, and if I work diligently in whatever aspect of the industry I find myself, I'll be able to make decisions that have a positive impact on the public and it's perception and favour for history. That's all I really want to do: make people interested in what happened before today. To do that, the history I create can't be like a chore for those I try to engage. Much of the criticism I've heard - and felt - leveled at history over the years is that it's boring. Which is why I called this blog The Pastime of Past Time; I think history should, and can, be fun, not taxing to the spirit.

I was speaking with Michael Kot, the Director of Original Production at History, about where film and history intersect. One thing he reiterated - and that I've heard almost constantly at History when talking about the production side of the business - is the importance that story plays in everything we do. Having a strong story will draw people in. If people are entertained, they'll keep watching. And maybe, just maybe, we can trick them into learning something. For me, all history (that is, the product of someone's work, not the past as it happened) is about is telling stories, anyway.

I listened to a great podcast this week that mentioned how the things that stay in our brains are the things we focus on and spend more time doing. And it makes sense that people are going to spend more time watching a film or television show they enjoy, rather than one they don't. And since probably 99% of people who tune in to movies and television do so for entertainment first, and education second (if at all, myself included), they're not going to watch something that doesn't entertain them.

Rather than try to get people to change the reasons why they watch history programming, I think the people working at, for, and with History have it right. They're attempting to make and choose shows that fit in with peoples' expectations, without sacrificing their historical integrity.

04 July 2007

Can I Carve the Turkey?

I noted in my last post that I’m interning at History Television three days a week for the next three months. One challenge I’m already facing is shifting my mindset from history to one focused on television; I am fairly certain that the “television” outweighs the “history” in History Television.

I do not mean that as a sleight; it’s just a statement of fact. History Television is a specialty television channel whose content centres around history. In spite of its name, the medium sometimes has priority, not the content, at least as far as historians are concerned. And especially since History Television is but one channel in the Alliance Atlantis constellation (which was recently purchased by CanWest Global).

There are people and executives within the organization who, no doubt – and I don’t blame them – are less concerned about historical accuracy than might be the average historian; what they want is to see the right kind of Nielsen ratings. I am not saying that they have no concern for accuracy, but that theirs is of a different nature than most historians. This is just a practical matter, not unlike a museum’s need to get people through its front door (more on this in a future post).

Moreover, as Robert Rosenstone argues in Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past, moving image media requires of the viewer an entirely different form of reading than written media. If we take it that film must follow the same standards as the written word for its historical accuracy, we are sorely mistaken, and greatly neglecting wonderful opportunities to present the past.

Film (and when I say film, I mean moving pictures, so television here applies) as history has its own rules and codes and ways of telling about the past that mark it as unique from the written word. I watched a screener with two colleagues here at History Television the other day, and it dawned on me that I need to brush up on my visual reading skills. I'm not terrible at reading film, but I'm not the best I can be, either. I am aware, however, and fully acknowledge that it takes some skill to be able to "read" visual media.

Over the course of my university education (both in and outside the classroom), I acquired the skills necessary to be able to read the written word. Only rarely was I ever made - or challenged, for that matter - to read visual media. So now, wanting to enter the working world as a public historian working with visual media, I find it necessary to develop these skills that my education sorely neglected. Which is a damn shame for a historian, since, as Rosenstone notes, "the visual media have become arguably the chief carrier of historical messages in our culture."

All of this, of course, is not a preface to an argument that says history programming is boring, or that the history presented on History Television is inaccurate. As a matter of fact, in my first week, I re-watched two excellent Canadian historical documentaries: The Bomber’s Dream, by Barry Stevens, and Fatherland, by Manfred Becker (Oh yeah, did I mention that I was paid to watch them? How great is that?). Both of the documentaries – as is the case with all histories – are tainted by some lack of objectivity, amongst other faults. But more so than that, the documentaries (and other television shows I watched) are entertaining, informative, and compelling stories and histories.

Back to my original point.

I think, then, that I need to find a way to reconcile my academic history training with the media in which I plan to work. Taking Rosenstone's point that most of the public gains most of their historical knowledge from visual media, I think it is of utmost importance that historians be involved in the creative processes behind historical films and television (and programming of specialty history channels).

My goal, then, is to try to learn as much as I possibly can about the film and television industries, with the eventual goal of finding employment in those fields in such a way as to exploit my knowledge and, as a coworker put it, historical expertise.

As Bill Turkel once told our Digital History class, if historians want to sit at the table with the people making changes in the world of digital technology, we need to be able to speak the language. Which is what I hope to achieve in the world of television and film: a place at the table, preferably the head, you know, carving the turkey.