Presentations by Taylor Downing and Prof. Helen Weinstein


Summary of Presentation by Taylor Downing, Managing Director of Flashback TV


Taylor introduced and discussed his forthcoming 2 hour documentary on the subject of the Cold War, as a case study in television history programming.

·         In his view an important part of the role of television is  to present  historical research and stories of significant events to a wide audience.  However, in this case there was very little, if any, existing academic research into this moment in history.   Therefore, much of the research was carried out by Flashback TV.


·            The Commissioning Editor of  Factual Programmes (check this title) at Channel 4 had expressed  an interest in programme proposals about the  Cold War, and particularly events from the 80s and 90s.  Discovery Channel were also looking at recent history for a series of documentaries which would have some appeal to a younger audience.  The programme was commissioned as a co-production.


•.     An early decision was made that the programme would take a the form of a documentary (not drama) and would include interviews, archive footage, some reconstruction and music from 1983. The aim was to produce a hybrid, but familiar style that would appeal to the younger audience who would remember the era, its music and news stories.


·            The programme used a combination of interviews with key players, documentary evidence, some scripted reconstruction, archive film footage and music from the period.  The interviews were considered to be so powerfully frank that it was decided dramatised scenes should play a lesser role in the overall programme.  Taylor screened a 15 minute extract from the programme.


Comments and discussion


The extract demonstrated the use of many different kinds of visual material, and it was noted that, in common with most history programming, the actual sources of this material were not identified.  ‘Referencing’ is considered to be a source of distraction for the audience and also many TV researchers are, perhaps understandably, reluctant to reveal their sources.


A discussion ensued about the potential offered by the Web and multi-platform delivery to add further information about the topic, including sources, references etc.


It was noted that the programme did not introduce counter evidence from historians dealing with this particular set of events.  It was suggested that the inclusion of the ideas of those historians who did not agree that this incident happened would have made the programme over long. Usually historical consultants are appointed to programmes and their point of view is offered. The consequence of this is that most history documentaries made for television put across a particular view or argument.


A discussion ensued about the commissioning process for history programming.  It was agreed that this was an extremely important element in our understanding of history programming.  It was suggested that commissioning can happen over informal discussions and often on a whim.   The point was made that the ‘whim’ was most likely to be the result of highly professional knowledge and understanding – an internalised commissioning strategy.


The point was made that different organisations have different commissioning strategies, for example, the BBC where the practice was to commission a programme, placing it in the schedule retrospectively.  


Summary of Presentation by Helen Weinstein, former radio and television producer, currently Professor of Public History, University of York


·            In this regard it was noted that the BBC had created particular ‘slots’ between 1992-1997. Obtaining this type of information might benefit the project.  The devising of slots leads to the idea of a profile of those that go with the slots.


·            Helen is involved in a project looking at the output marking the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade.  This multi-disciplinary project is addressing programming, commissioning and museums, and can be related to the importance placed on this commemorative event by Government agencies (for example, museums have received a total of £60 million connected to exhibitions).  The commissioning process for  television could be compared to  the commissioning process in museums, galleries and community centres where there is a perceived need to take the information to the black community.  It is also interesting to consider gender and identity issues - what brings people to that public space to see that exhibition?  Is it about people's sense of belonging and cultural heritage?  Helen is also looking at trying to bridge the gap between academia and television, for example, in working with the News Night production teams to achieve a historical focus on current affairs.


·         In discussing broadcasting strategies, she noted that there is an attempt to attract younger audiences and as such to produce integrated products. Thus, the television programme is no longer just a programme – it is a product that is packaged for different audiences, books, DVDs, Internet formats. 


·            Helen welcomed the project’s address to regional programming.  This could include Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  Although ITV regional programming is considered to be on the decline, there is evidence that history programming is being made which focuses on regional identity. 


·         A discussion about audiences ensued, which included important questions of gender, race and ethnic difference.  Helen suggested that these are complex issues, for example, there is no evidence that a female presenter will attract a greater proportion of female viewers.  Rather, it is the form and content of the programming that makes a difference. For example in the ‘reality house series’ the proportion of women and children in the audience increased most likely because they were featured within the series.


·         It was noted that producers are keen to attract audiences in the age range 16-25, including for TV history programming. This demographic is important for advertisers for brand loyalty establishment.   This clearly has an influence on commissioning editors, funding sources and will potentially result in moves across platforms for history content.


·         It was noted that the Institute for Research into the Public Understanding of the Past is to be established at the University of York in the near future.


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