British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Televising History

How embedded has the version of history as presented on television become in the public consciousness? Ann Gray and Erin Bell from the University of Lincoln ran a project that sought to answer that question and explain how ‘we get the kind of television history we do’.

About the Authors:

Professor Ann Gray, University of Lincoln and author of Televising History: Mediating the past in postwar Europe, edited with Erin Bell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
Staff web page: www.lincoln.ac.uk/media/staff/
E-mail: agray@lincoln.ac.uk

Dr Erin Bell, University of Lincoln and author of Televising History: Mediating the past in postwar Europe, edited with Ann Gray (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
Staff web page: www.lincoln.ac.uk/humanities/staff/
E-mail: ebell@lincoln.ac.uk
http://tvhistory.lincoln.ac.uk/

At the beginning of the 21st century a senior television executive declared that ‘history was the new rock and roll’. He was referring to the seemingly endless appetite of television audiences for history programmes and a number of producers saw the opportunities for commissions in this area.

The key question behind the research was: How do we get the kind of television history we do?

This was the impulse behind what became the ‘Televising History 1995-2010’ project, which began at the University of Lincoln in 2006, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. Media scholar Ann Gray was the principal investigator and Erin Bell (a historian) the research fellow. The grant also included bursaries for two PhD students to work on the project. We saw television history as part of public history and a key disseminator of the past to contemporary audiences.

The key question behind the research was: How do we get the kind of television history we do? In order to answer that question, the project identified three sites of investigation: history in the academy; the television industry, both terrestrial (broadcast and independent) and satellite; and the programmes themselves. We began by scoping and recording factual history output across networks and channels; by identifying the key players in the industry, from commissioning editors to independent producers; and by talking to historians who had been involved in programme making, as consultants, advisors, writers and as presenters. Our questions to producers and historians were aimed at understanding what factors influenced history programming, how genres were developed, why certain periods were preferred over others, what role perceptions of the audience played and, in general, we sought to identify the tensions of the logics of television and historiography in shaping ideas about the past.

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