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Television Histories

Television Histories: Shaping Collective Memory in the Media Age

Gary R. Edgerton
Peter C. Rollins
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    Television Histories
    Book Description:

    From Ken Burns's documentaries to historical dramas such as Roots, from A&E's Biography series to CNN, television has become the primary source for historical information for tens of millions of Americans today. Why has television become such a respected authority? What falsehoods enter our collective memory as truths? How is one to know what is real and what is imagined -- or ignored -- by producers, directors, or writers?

    Gary Edgerton and Peter Rollins have collected a group of essays that answer these and many other questions. The contributors examine the full spectrum of historical genres, but also institutions such as the History Channel and production histories of such series asThe Jack Benny Show, which ran for fifteen years. The authors explore the tensions between popular history and professional history, and the tendency of some academics to declare the past "off limits" to nonscholars. Several of them point to the tendency for television histories to embed current concerns and priorities within the past, as in such popular shows asQuantum LeapandDr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. The result is an insightful portrayal of the power television possesses to influence our culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5829-7
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction: Television as Historian: A Different Kind of History Altogether
    (pp. 1-16)
    Gary R. Edgerton

    History on television is a vast enterprise, spanning commercial and public networks, corporate and independent producers. As we rapidly enter the twenty-first century, a significant increase in historical programming exists on television screens throughout the United States, mostly in the form of biographies and quasi-biographical documentaries, which coincides with a marked rise of interest in history among the general population. This introduction will explore some of the parameters and implications of “television as historian,” propose seven general assumptions about the nature of this widespread phenomenon, and end with some concluding observations concerning the enduring relationship betweenprofessional historyandpopular...

  4. Part I: Prime-Time Entertainment Programming as Historian

    • 1 History TV and Popular Memory
      (pp. 19-36)
      Steve Anderson

      A remarkable and misguided consensus exists among both historians and media critics regarding television’s unsuitability for the construction of history. Notwithstanding The History Channel’s promise to provide access to “All of History—All in One Place,” Television viewers are often characterized as victims in an epidemic of cultural amnesia for which television is both disease and carrier. TV, so the argument goes, can produce no lasting sense of history; at worst, it actually impedes viewers’ ability to receive, process, or remember information about the past. Raymond Williams’s theorization of the “flow” of televisual discourse is invoked to argue that the...

    • 2 Masculinity and Femininity in Television’s Historical Fictions: Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
      (pp. 37-58)
      Mimi White

      For several months in 1993 on Saturday nights,The Young Indiana Jones Chroniclesaired on ABC at the same time thatDr. Quinn, Medicine Womanwas shown on CBS.Dr. Quinnwas introduced mid-season, and its immediate ratings success secured its renewal for the following season, concomitant with the cancellation of the ratings-weakYoung Indiana Jones Chronicles.Both programs project a sense of “quality family television,” deploying a specific range of referential and aesthetic markers, while aiming to attract younger viewers along with their parents. More crucially, both programs are historical fictions offering revisionist histories and embedding a sense of...

    • 3 Quantum Leap: The Postmodern Challenge of Television as History
      (pp. 59-78)
      Robert Hanke

      Laurie Anderson’s “The Dream Before,” which recalls one of Walter Benjamin’s theses on the philosophy of history, shall serve as a point of departure for this essay, just as the “Quantum Accelerator” serves as Dr. Sam Beckett’s point of departure in the television seriesQuantum Leap.¹ This essay examines some possibilities for thinking about television as history. It considers what television studies could do to address television as remembered history and how the notion of popular memory works as a supplementary to the main arguments advanced by histories of television.

      The agenda of this essay is three-fold. First, it describes...

    • 4 Profiles in Courage: Televisual History on the New Frontier
      (pp. 79-100)
      Daniel Marcus

      The presidential administration of John F. Kennedy is widely seen as having significantly expanded the interaction between White House politics and broadcast television. Kennedy’s use of television—to convey his personal qualities and political stands—culminated in the television adaptation of his bookProfiles in Courage,which ran on the National Broadcasting Company during 1964–1965. The docudrama series emerged in the context of the Kennedy administration’s effort to resuscitate the tradition of “high-quality” television in the early 1960s, and corresponded to theories of history associated with Kennedy’s New Frontier. The series shared with other New Frontier texts the themes...

  5. Part II: The Television Documentary as Historian

    • 5 Victory at Sea: Cold War Epic
      (pp. 103-122)
      Peter C. Rollins

      A television series likeVictory at Seamay seem trivial as “history” when compared with the scholarly fifteen-volume dreadnought by Admiral Morison (on which it was based), but this academic judgment may miss the most important point for a media age.Victory at Seareceived practically every major television award for which it was eligible: it won the Freedom Foundation’s George Washington Medal; it was awarded an “Emmy” from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences; it received “best documentary” awards from five major trade magazines; and it received a host of “outstanding achievement” awards. Its memorable, interpretive score, rendered...

    • 6 Breaking the Mirror: Dutch Television and the History of the Second World War
      (pp. 123-142)
      Chris Vos

      The public memory of the Second World War certainly stays alive. In the United States, the fiftieth anniversary of the ending of the war was marked by a controversy about an exhibition on theEnola Gay;in France, there was and is a bitter dispute about the “Vichy Republic”; and in Germany, the publication of Daniel Goldhagen’s studyHitler’s Willing Executionersprovoked a public uproar about the alleged participation of common German citizens in the Holocaust. Indeed, especially in countries that were occupied by the Germans, the memory of the war seems to be a continuing focal point for public...

    • 7 Contested Public Memories: Hawaiian History as Hawaiian or American Experience
      (pp. 143-168)
      Carolyn Anderson

      On January 27, 1997, in his introduction ofHawaii’s Last Queento a national PBS audience of nearly seven million viewers, historian David McCullough, host ofThe American Experience,labeled the 1893 overthrow of the hereditary monarchy of Hawai‘i as “an unfamiliar story to most Americans today.”¹ Then McCullough acknowledged another audience of people not only familiar with, but invested in, this story: “In Hawaii, however, the subject is anything but old hat, and interpretations of what actually happened differ sharply, depending on who’s telling the story.” McCullough recognized—but located elsewhere—the production of history as an essentially political...

    • 8 Mediating Thomas Jefferson: Ken Burns as Popular Historian
      (pp. 169-190)
      Gary R. Edgerton

      Ken Burns’s career defies all conceivable expectations. He became one of public television’s busiest and most celebrated producers during the 1980s, a decade when the historical documentary held little interest for most American TV viewers. He operates his own independent company, Florentine Films, in a small New England village more than four hours north of New York City, hardly a crossroads in the highly competitive and often insular world of corporately funded, PBS (Public Broadcasting System) sponsored productions. His fifteen major specials so far are also strikingly out of step with the special effects and frenetic pacing of most nonfiction...

  6. Part III: TV News and Public Affairs Programming as Historian

    • 9 Pixies: Homosexuality, Anti-Communism, and the Army-McCarthy Hearings
      (pp. 193-206)
      Thomas Doherty

      During the Army-McCarthy hearings, broadcast live on television from April 22 to June 17,1954, a risque exchange provoked gales of laughter from the unruly gallery packed into Senate Caucus Room 310. While examining a doctored photograph offered into evidence by the McCarthy staff, Joseph N. Welch, attorney for the U.S. Army, made the sardonic suggestion that perhaps “pixies” were the culprits responsible for the alterations. McCarthy snidely asked Welch to define “pixie” because “I think [you] might be an expert on that.” “A pixie,” the lawyer snapped back, eyeing McCarthy’s side of the table, “is a close relative of a...

    • 10 Images of History in Israel Television News: The Territorial Dimensions of Collective Memories, 1987–1990
      (pp. 207-229)
      Netta Ha-Ilan

      Television news tells the story of the key events of the last hours. Behind this apparently simple definition there are a number of theoretical questions dealing with the modes through which television news imposes some order upon the chaotic nature of the “real” and grants meaning to current events. In this process, television news selects, categorizes, combines, and narrates by means of sights and sounds. It attempts to represent the real world using culturally understandable signs and symbols. It is argued here that the latter are often linked to definitions of a collective past and the demarcation of social boundaries....

    • 11 Memories of 1945 and 1963: American Television Coverage of the End of the Berlin Wall, November 9, 1989
      (pp. 230-243)
      David Culbert

      The Berlin Wall, which came down on November 9,1989, is a visual story whose meaning is found in the euphoria of masses of persons spontaneously removing, as they moved from East to West Berlin, the quintessential symbol of the Cold War. The events of November 9 were the stuff of banner headlines in newspapers all over the world; sometimes a dramatic event truly symbolizes a change in a system of alliances or the reshaping of a country’s national identity. Such was the meaning of November 9,1989: it marked the end of the Cold War and signaled the inevitable reunification of...

    • 12 Television: The First Flawed Rough Drafts of History
      (pp. 244-258)
      Philip M. Taylor

      Television, the predominant mass medium of the second half of the twentieth century (at least in industrialized countries) remains largely neglected by historians as a primary archival source. Radio, sometimes referred to as “the forgotten medium,” has suffered a similar fate, even though it remains a primary source of news, information, and entertainment for millions of people (especially in developing countries). Where the mass media are concerned, mainstream history has just begun to accept the press and the cinema as legitimate “windows into the past.” So what is it about the newer media of broadcasting that generally makes historians nervous...

  7. Part IV: Television Production, Reception, and History

    • 13 The History Channel and the Challenge of Historical Programming
      (pp. 261-281)
      Brian Taves

      The History Channel was launched at the beginning of 1995 as an offspring of the eleven-year-old Arts & Entertainment network (A&E). In subsequent years, The History Channel has increasingly become a standard part of basic cable packages, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Emerging with the evolving proliferation of cable stations that began in the 1980s, The History Channel has joined the constellation of channels devoted to specialized non-news nonfiction entertainment for particular audiences, including nature (Animal Planet), gardening (Home & Garden Network), Travel Channel, and such generalized documentary channels as Discovery and The Learning Channel...

    • 14 Rethinking Television History
      (pp. 282-308)
      Douglas Gomery

      Writings about the early history of U.S. television have long concentrated on the rise of dominating national networks. Whether coming from a textual, personal, or national approach, historians have shaped television history for the United States from solely the network perspective. Yet based on principles of social, demographic, policy and urban history, we should rethink this seemingly “Obvious” historical analysis, attend to TV’s early history at the local level, and then integrate and synthesize a complete historical analysis of the coming of television to the United States.

      Let us begin with Monday the twenty-first of January 1957, a day when...

    • 15 Nice Guys Last Fifteen Seasons: Jack Benny on Television, 1950–1965
      (pp. 309-334)
      James L. Baughman

      On Sunday evening, October 28,1950, Jack Benny, America’s most popular radio comedian, made his network television debut. People finally saw what most had only heard. For more than fifteen years, Benny had crafted a vain, insecure persona. And his very first line continued the tradition of the preoccupation with self: “I’d give a million dollars to know how I look!” And the anxiety: “If I’m a success tonight, all right. If not, I’ll kill myself.”¹

      Benny had no cause for concern. For the next fifteen seasons on network television,The Jack Benny Showgenerally enjoyed good to excellent ratings. “The...

    • 16 Organizing Difference on Global TV: Television History and Cultural Geography
      (pp. 335-356)
      Michael Curtin

      A few years ago, I received an unsolicited copy of a public relations videotape from AT&T offering an optimistic narrative of how the most recent communications revolution will alter our everyday lives. The opening shot ofConnections: AT&T’s Vision of the Futurefeatures the title scripted across a brilliant daylight image of a snow-covered Himalayan mountain peak. This shot then dissolves to the misty ambiance of a dimly lit weaving hut, occupied by a mustachioed, elderly man. The man rises slowly from a handloom and ambles across the shop to a low table, where a laptop computer is emitting a...

  8. Selected Bibliography: Additional Sources for Researching Television as Historian
    (pp. 357-365)
    Kathryn Helgesen Fuller-Seeley
  9. Contributors
    (pp. 366-369)
  10. Television and Film Index
    (pp. 370-375)
  11. General Index
    (pp. 376-384)