Overview by Professor Ann Gray, Project Director


I’d like to welcome you all to this first meeting of the Advisory Board to the Televising History 1995 – 2010 Project as we complete our first year.


We very much appreciate the support and the enthusiasm you have expressed about the project, and for giving up a day of your precious time for what we hope will be an annual event in order that we can up-date you on the progress of the project and get your valuable feedback on our work. 


We have a plan for the day which you have in your packs and we hope there will be lots of opportunities for discussion and debate about the project and history on television. We thought it would be good to look at some television history and Taylor Downing has generously agreed to show and talk about his current project.  This afternoon Prof Helen Weinstein of the University of York will lead off our discussion on Public History

I want to start by saying something about the project – how we came to be doing it and why and give you an indication of its range, then Erin, Barbara and Sarah are going to talk about their involvement.


I first started thinking about the idea about five years ago and it was inspired by a number of observations:


·         the rise of, interest in, and significance of television history programming: media professionals recognise the compelling nature of narratives of the past and seemed keen to present history to a range of audiences.

·         the increasing public interest in the past – reflected in the apparent appetite for history programming, but also other phenomena such as the appeal of popular histories, genealogy and so on

·         as a television scholar I was interested in the rapid changes in the media industries themselves – technological and institutional developments.


Academic television research usually focuses on one or other element of television: analysis of the programmes; audiences and reception and least often, production studies.  What I saw was an opportunity of bringing all these aspects of this thing we call ‘television’ into play in one project.  Thus by using ‘history’ as a theme this would enable me to pay attention to all of these aspects, thereby making quite a significant contribution to ‘television studies’.  The theme would raise interesting questions about truth telling, legitimacy and authority, and would require an address to what we might call ‘serious’ programming (rather neglected in favour of the study of more popular forms). In addition, and perhaps most importantly, ‘what kind of history appears on television’?  ‘what aspects of the past do we see most frequently’? and  ‘what dimensions of the past are absent from the screen’?.  These seemed to me to be an interesting set of questions and ideas to explore.


Work then commenced and was given a boost when the University invested in the project by employing Erin as Research Fellow.  We developed a research proposal and put in a formal bid to the Arts & Humanities Research Council which has an annual budget of £75 million to support research in the arts and humanities.   Incidentally they receive 1500 applications per year, of which around 600 are successful.  Last year our project was one of the 600 successful ones.  We now have funding for four years which meant Erin continued as Research Fellow and our bid included two PhD bursaries of which Barbara and Sarah are beneficiaries.

Our research questions are – put simply:


What kind of history appears on television and what forms does it take?

How is historical knowledge articulated for television?

What are the competing professional codes, institutional objectives and value systems at work within the academy and media institutions?

What kind of knowledge is generated through television history?


In exploring these questions we are aiming to:


Identify the processes behind the televising of history (this involves exploring history and historical studies within Universities, and within the media industries: the commissioning process, funding, marketing, distribution, production companies and their organisations, talking to individual presenters, producer/directors, writers, researchers and others involved in history programming.


Identify the variety of types of history programmes developed broadly within factual sub-genres (we decided to focus our attention on programming about the past which grounds its claims to authenticity through recourse to documentary and/or experiential constructions of events and life in the past.  We have already identified many different forms of programming within this broadly ‘factual’ category and are building a considerable audio-visual archive.  Our analysis of the programmes themselves will not only look at how history is done through these texts – questions of historiography – but also at the ideological construction of the texts especially in relation to national identity and changing versions of national pasts.  Although the project concentrates mainly on the diversity of UK programming, we are also looking towards other parts of Europe for important comparative material.


Investigate how these forms articulate with changes and developments within media institutions – what shapes television histories – genres, series, formats and how are developments within the industry, especially funding, marketing (the distinction between local and global markets) but also working practices more generally. History programming is produced by UK terrestrial networks (mainly BBC & C4, but increasingly and surprisingly perhaps C5 and some ITV regional output) and a number of independent production companies have strong history portfolios (for example Taylor’s company, Flashback) and of course we have the satellite channels dedicated to History as well as Discovery, National Geographic, etc. who also commission some history programming.  How do these practices and processes influence the promotion of certain cultural forms over others, or certain subject areas over others?


Examine the negotiation that takes place between historians and media professionals in programme employment and production.  Where does the historical knowledge come from?  Who authors television history?  What are the implications for historical knowledge when most television history is narrative and character led, and is to a great extent dependent on the survival of eye witnesses and available archive?


Explore the concept ‘public history’ and the relevance of the term for analysing history on television.  This is a term which has more and more salience within academic history and we believe provides a useful overarching description of the circulation of ideas about the past – through television certainly, but also through other channels: web-sites, journals, popular books as well as museums and ‘heritage sites’. Public history is on our agenda for this afternoon.


To investigate modes of understanding encouraged by different kinds of history programming.  This suggests an audience study, but we made the decision to focus on a more specialist ‘market’ for television programmes – schools – how programming is used in schools.  How and what kind of history is taught in school via the National Curriculum is a contentious area and subject of recurring public and often political debate.


Thus we have several sites or theatres of action for our research: an expanding body of programming; different modes of production; the academy and schools. What we have set out to do is to explore the complex connections between these elements in beginning to answer the question: how does television history get to be the way it is?


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