Whether they be citizens of a city, state, nation or the world at large, perhaps nothing is more essential for any group of people in endeavoring to forge a path forward than understanding where they have come from in order to figure out how to proceed to where they wish to direct their society. The way I like to put it is that only a people with a sense of shared history can truly jointly create a shared destiny. Given the role of media in transmitting and accounting for that history, how the various professionals working in these fields go about their business can have tremendous impact in determining what issues and priorities assume more prominence. Thus, it was interesting to see what methods currently are being practiced as of 2011 at the History Makers broadcast media conference at the Marriott Marquis from January 26-28.
While History Makers is focused on non-fiction broadcasting, the forms that may take are certainly expanding, as the realm it encompasses has become increasingly influenced by the sort of wall-to-wall media environment we currently inhabit. The more options viewers have has stimulated a demand for greater metrics in all programming, which has had the effect of making programmers (and commissioning editors, a large contingent at the conference) turn more and more to formulas that have worked in other areas of television programming. As a result, we now see more celebrity-hosted shows, like “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” on TLC, and “Only In America With Larry the Cable Guy” on History TV. And, with the need to compete with reality series such as Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch”, there are programs like “Ice Road Truckers” on History TV. Was it Milton Berle who said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of television”.
Needless to say, in the history of television as a medium where advertising has from the start variously suffused, sponsored, buttressed and bracketed nearly all forms of programming, actors and other famous faces have always been used to bridge – if not in fact blur – the lines between the aired content that alternately produces and consumes network revenues. Yet, while once professional journalists might be transformed into media stars (Edward R. Murrow being the progenitor), the current fragmenting of the media market seems to require not only that more celebrities are manufactured – often out of the ‘real’ people who populate reality programming – but that any brand they personify must be instantly leveraged through their participation across whatever other ventures are being proposed by their corporate employers. While this may be understandable in terms of business logic, with regards to creating a media landscape rooted in dissemination of historical truths and current realities, it is a dubious formula. Certainly the on-the-job dramas of everyday working Joes can illustrate greater economic, cultural and political trends, but without a requisite editorial distance from the subjects, the content functions more as merely somebody’s home movies (albeit often with a little more bathos than most people include in films they make of themselves to watch themselves) than as something you’d expect to find included at a forum for History Makers.
Some panels on January 28 demonstrated ways different folks are trying to bridge innovations of new media with more traditional approaches to non-fiction programming, with varying degrees of appeal. On a panel entitled ‘TV + Games = Awesome’ the American and English panelists presented very divergent notions. Jo Twist, of Channel 4 in England, played clips of “Bow Street Runner” and “1066”, two efforts which use historical facts and locations as a basis for interactive applications which can be navigated by the viewer; it seemed to me to be exactly what you’d strive for if your intent was to make a digital game out of history, with educational elements that enhanced the aspect of chance inherent in any well made game. Conversely, Kenny Miller of US-based Starling.TV showed us interactive gaming focusing on the popular fictional series “The Sopranos” and “The Hills”, prompting me to question what place these had at a non-fiction forum, and to observe that these were created merely for the sake of “corporate pop culture brand extension”. Another panelist rejoined that these were simply examples of how one could do historical programming, but it struck me that the very appeal of such game conceptions – the hook, if you will – were the established popularity of these fictional characters and situations, and that the same methods could thus not be utilized for the very different proposition of bringing younger media consumers into the big tent of history.
One conference attendee remarked to me that he sensed a lot of people were there with preordained ideas of who they planned to be doing business with beforehand and what sort of programming will fill their upcoming slates, a perception that left him feeling somewhat disadvantaged, as he’d come to the conference without a deal of any sort in place. Indeed the familiarity many participants have with one another gives one the sense that there is a sort of junketeering aspect to the proceedings, especially given that History Makers directly followed NATPE (which took place Jan. 24-26 in Miami Beach), and preceded the Washington D.C. Real Screen conference (which ran from Jan. 31 – Feb. 3) on the calendar of domestic events focused on non-fiction programming. Moreover, if you truly have a global-sized travel budget, you could have continued on to the Berlinale European Film Market (Feb. 10-20), before pausing to resume the junket in March with the Factual FORUM in London. Depending if you’re taking in Cannes or not, you can also swing by Toronto to attend Hot Docs, running from April 28-May 8 in 2011; maybe someone should make a reality series about the yearly festival and conference travels of broadcasting programmers.
On January 27 there was a presentation entitled ‘VICE Magazine: From Guerilla Journalism to a Far-Reaching Content Empire’ that had Vice Media’s Chief Strategic Officer Spencer Baim demonstrating his firm’s unlikely yet successful way to meld the current trends in reality-based media with content that is genuinely within the sphere of contemporary historical reportage. It’s not surprising that it has managed to do so while operating bestride the multiplicity of portals in reaching generations who’ve come of age accustomed to digital media, as VICE was itself launched in the online era. In a sense VICE has been able to assume the patronage of cutting edge real-time historical journalism in a way Playboy Magazine could once be said to have done, as their broad-based consumer appeal is essentially aimed more at the solar plexus than at the cranium; the recent Volume 18 Number 2 “The Teetering On The Brink Issue” of their magazine contained articles on “The Sexual Health and Habits of the Entire World (Almost-ish)”, a spread of bondage photos by Richard Kern, other similarly outré photo spreads, and was rounded out by obligatory music reviews in the back. Yet, the appeal of this snarky, irreverent tone also extends to include daredevil travelogues – from Mexican border towns infested with drug cartel violence; to one of the “nearly 1,000” tunnels leading from Sinai to Gaza in order to move people, goods and arms there since the 2007 joint blockade of Gaza by Egypt and Israel; the black market of Moroccan women who smuggle goods from the Spanish enclave of Melilla into their homeland; and 3 North Americans who manage to smuggle diamonds out of Sierra Leone (which, if apprehended doing so, could result in a five-year prison term – “basically a death sentence for people who look like us” said the smuggler/reporter). The draw of the earthier content makes possible – and is in no way inconsistent with – the more undercover-styled travel journalism they are able to thereby subsidize, and moreover they utilize the sort of crowd-sourcing for content that is commonplace on the web today; it is indeed riskier sorts of travel ventures and fact gathering that are more possible within such a no-holds barred forum.
By contrast, as more and more media outlets become part of corporate entities driven by quarterly earnings, considerations of decorum or propriety necessarily become part of the calculus in determining not only what stories will be told, but also how. Even not-for-profit broadcasters like PBS have increasingly become beholden to various forms of sponsorship that have an inhibitory effect on content. I remember at the 2010 conference, when I asked Tom Koch of WGBH what they had coming up, he happily replied there would be “10 more innings of ‘Baseball’” the seemingly interminable Ken Burns production, which by including fusty talking heads like George Will and Doris Kearns Goodwin – and featuring a relative paucity of game sequences (likely due to costly MLB licensing agreements) – manages the hard trick of being even more slow-moving and boring than the sport of baseball itself.
Regarding the keynote speakers, 2011 represented an improvement over 2010. Often those primed for the gig are in a position where they have some recent or current project to promote, as did Daniel Goldhagen when he screened excerpts of his made for television doc “Worse Than War”, based on his book of the same name, as part of his 2010 keynote. Goldhagen is of course most known for assigning equal culpability for the Holocaust to all Germans of that time, and his subsequent writings and related projects have expanded on his oeuvre of what I find myself calling genocide shtick. While it is indeed a grave subject, the self-seriousness, if not to say self-righteousness that he brings to it has prompted criticisms like that of David Rieff, who has called Goldhagen a “Pro-Israel polemicist and amateur historian”. After Goldhagen’s talk I approached him to ask if he felt that Israelis and/or Jews couldn’t also be perpetrators of genocide, and his abrupt one word answer, “No”, seemed to me to betray both an intransigence and a fundamental blind spot – one which might prevent him from perceiving why it has been that Hebrews have experienced serial persecutions over the course of a long and geographically wide-ranging diaspora.
2011 conference attendees were treated to keynoters with perspectives of a more balanced – and, hence, more engrossing – nature, and which featured the very different approaches to and contemporary dynamics in historical and current events programming on the part of US and British media, respectively. Simon Schama’s talk, in which he featured clips surveying his take on the most recent banking and financial upheavals, underscored that his place in the media firmament owes as much to his capacities as an entertainer as an intellectual; his productions follow squarely in the British tradition of having an erudite guide – most often a bona fide academic, whether a Bronowski, Burke, Attenborough or the like (though lately even a Heavy Metal vocalist, like Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, can fulfill the slot) – walking the viewer sequentially through disparate locales to illustrate the grand sweep of topics more ‘macro historical’ by nature.
The American style, by contrast, is typically of the classic ‘newsmagazine’ variety; a method that might be termed ‘micro historical’, it features someone, almost invariably from a journalistic background, boring in on a topic with a sharp focus for a relatively short segment of time – often not even amounting to a whole duration of a half hours worth of programming. Exemplifying this approach is Bill Moyers, whose speech ranged over a number of personal recollections all illuminating his considered experience that control in media equals suppression of memory. In that vein, focusing on how the powerful seek to squelch availability of information, he recalled how when Lyndon Johnson was compelled to sign the Freedom of Information Act into law in 1966 he took credit for the legislation despite fighting against its passage previously; he also spoke out forcefully in favor of Wikileaks. Also fascinating was Moyers’ story of how chemical industry execs obtained a transcript of a planned program on the health problems pesticides in foods were causing children, which enabled them to construct a propaganda campaign via the PR firm Porter Novelli to counteract the unflattering telecast before it had ever aired. Moyers closed with a critique of the threat to Net neutrality.
One of the always eagerly awaited ceremonies at History Makers is their annual awards presentation, which was hosted by Alison Stewart, the Co-anchor of PBS TV’s ‘Need To Know’. The Outstanding Achievement Award went to ‘Frontline’; Best History Production went to “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”; Best Use of Archive in a History Production went to “JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America”; Best Historical Drama Production went to “Darwin’s Darkest Hour”; Best Current Affairs Production went to “Afghanistan: Beyond Enemy Lines”; Most Innovative Production went to “Battle For North America”; Best Interactive Production went to “Horrible Histories Interactive”; and the Special Jury Award went to “The Tail Operation”.