With the diversification – or, perhaps, fragmentation – of the broadcast television market, factual programming has found itself corralled into specialised outlets. The fate of history-themed programs is typical, more hours are being produced, but the great majority of them are finding homes either on dedicated channels (“Yesterday”. “History”) or on subscription outlets which, equally, create and appeal to niche markets (Amazon Prime). For the writer/producer in the history space this focusing of the market carries both opportunities and liabilities.
The opportunity, of course, is that there is a larger market for output, though this is moderated slightly by the limited budgets such outlets typically make available. The liability is to offer material to an audience that has an established interest in, and knowledge of, the subject matter. Mistakes are sure to generate emails from unexpected corners of the globe.
That all of this exists within a commercial reality confronts the program maker with a further fact – not all history is equally saleable. Which, without too much exaggeration, could be characterised by the question: Does it have Hitler in the title?
Everywhere, Hitler, the Third Reich, more broadly the Second World War are seen as the most bankable of the history stories – which explains the existence of Uncle Hitler, Hitler the Junkie, Supernatural Nazis and many more (these are real titles).
This appetite is cheerfully fed by program makers because the content exists – in the form of archive material (pre-1900 and even pre-1920 life gets hard). Of course, archive is not a limitless resource, there is only so much footage of Munich or Nuremberg, D-Day or Hiroshima. Strangely, the dedicated core audience does not seem to mind this unduly and viewer feedback not infrequently includes a slightly surprised “even contains some footage I had not seen before!”
This limited amount of archive material – and each individual production further restricts its archive because of licensing costs – encourages reversioning. Upscaling the material to HD perhaps, or “colourising” the B&W footage.
Where the program is being produced out of a market that is almost self-supporting, the use of on-camera talent – particularly of a name that helps to boost ratings – is a common practice in history programming. But for an independent production company away from the main centres, like the one for which I work in Australia, international success across broad markets is an economic necessity. And this speaks against the use of the onscreen presenter – regrettably, for such a device makes narrative structure and the filling of screentime a fairly straightforward business. But onscreen presenters are not appreciated in the international market where foreign language versions that replace the so-called “voice of God” narrator are much easier to organise and to sell on to the viewer.
These, then, are some of the parameters that influence the choice of topic, its development and decisions concerning creative execution that someone like me needs to address. They are not – or should not be – the only issues. The greater the requirement on an individual to take carriage of the production, the more important it is that the subject matter encourages a personal investment. My work practice, necessarily, means coming up with an idea, conducting the research, writing the script, finding the participants, conducting the interviews, creating the integrated script and overseeing all of the steps of production. I cannot imagine being able to do that effectively with a topic in which I had no interest.
Having offered a topic – and been approved for development – I imagine that the next question is one with which academics are very familiar: what can I say about this that has not been said before? The answer, to return to the point I made above, may partly be answered by a technical/creative initiative – first time in HD, first time in colour and so on. Titles like World War Two from Space are in the same category and adding 3-D animation is a variant. Another production novelty – not using the word in a pejorative way – could be the contributors, whether expert or eyewitness.
In my view, these features add marketing benefits to a program – they can be the USP that the agents and others whose responsibility it is to sell productions are so keen to identify. But they are not a substitute for a perspective or point of view that validates the program.
The last four history-based productions for which I have been responsible were all traversing familiar territory and in a basically familiar way: each was substantially clip-based – that is, each drew heavily on the footage archives to which the production company had access – and each incorporated original interviews. One of the two two-part series that I have made in collaboration with CCTV10 (China Central Television) had new, original footage of locations relevant to the story, the original material in the other three series was limited to interviews. Other productions with which I have been involved as writer have additionally used historically informed re-enactment (particularly World War 1 narratives).
The longest of the series for which I have been responsible, The Price of Empire, was thirteen episodes attempting to tell the global story of the Second World War. It was decided that a “USP” would be scaling all of the archive to HD. I was not entirely persuaded of the benefits, but when I began to see the material in this form, and observe details in the image not previously clear, I was converted. My own creative decision for the series was that the contributory interviews would be limited to eyewitnesses and I interviewed fifty people from fourteen countries, mostly veterans of the fighting, but also Holocaust and Hiroshima survivors.
My most recent program, in eight episodes, tells a complicated story of the years 1919-1939 under the title Impossible Peace. All of the interviews for this program were with academics (38 of them) covering the spectrum of content. There are limitations in terms of the archive and we settled on a strong, visual style of multiple screens which in part helps to accommodate the limitation and in part to refresh familiar images; more importantly, it was a visual way of reinforcing the thematic foundation of the program, the idea of many things happening, simultaneously, sometimes with connections, sometimes not, but always with some degree of effect. To achieve such visual effects when I entered the industry, as a trainee assistant film editor at the BBC in 1966, would have been prohibitively expensive and have taken weeks in a film laboratory. For program makers it is by exploring new ways of telling familiar stories that we can hope to hold, and add to, our audience.
Michael Cove was born in London, attended the London Film School and joined the BBC in film editing. He worked in film editing following migration to Australia before becoming a full-time writer in 1974. In a freelance career spanning 25 years, he wrote for every medium and every genre – feature film, theatre, radio drama and every type of television program. In 1998 he joined a small production company in Canberra. It is now a large production company outputting multiple hours of factual programming for international broadcast. The company’s particular areas of interest are history, natural history, and science and technology. Cove’s main contribution has been to the history slate.
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