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.

1 comment:

gidon shaviv said...

sorry to use your comments section, I couldn't find your email..


I've created a website where I'm putting together all the historical podcasts and organizing them into a useful directory. I'm making pages for specific historical Figures, and putting on each page all of the relevant episodes for that character from the different podcasts. So for example if you searching for podcasts about Napoleon, you will find 10 different podcasts with around 35 episodes about him. Or there is a different page dedicated to podcasts about Alexander the Great.

Please check out my page: http://historicalpodcasts.googlepages.com
I'm sure you get many e-mails asking you to link to them. However I'm sure you will see that my page is a high quality site and a useful tool. I started the page a week ago, and I need links to help the site grow.

thanks! let me know what you think!