Historians Brace for Cable Channel
Round-the-clock service may be `good television,' but will it be great scholarship?
BOSTON — HISTORY, nothing but history, 24 hours a day, seven days a week - documentaries, miniseries, movies, panel discussions, lectures, and more.
Are there really enough history buffs out there to justify launching a round-the-clock cable channel devoted solely to this kind of TV fare, however important it may be?
More than enough, claims Abbe Raven, vice president of programming and production for the History Channel, which debuts Jan. 1 as part of the A&E Television Networks.
``For the second year now,'' she says, ``independent studies have shown that among a list of possible new channels, the idea of a history channel has ranked No. 1 in viewer interest, even compared with channels people know about, like ESPN2 and Bravo.''
But history-related shows can be found all over the dial. ``Smithsonian's Great Battles of the Civil War,'' to cite just one, premieres on the Learning Channel Dec. 26, a few days before the History Channel debuts. Why not let viewers pick and choose the shows they want?
``Because,'' Ms. Raven claims, ``viewers crave to have somewhere they can go to see all of history, all in one place.''
On the new outlet's prime-time weekday schedule, journalist Karen Stone hosts ``Year by Year'' from 7 to 8 p.m., a look at people and events through newsreel footage. ``History Alive'' - airing 8 to 9 p.m. and hosted by veteran TV journalist Roger Mudd -
will offer original documentaries recounting episodes in history: Already planned are ``The Secret Service,'' ``The Crusades,'' and ``Automobiles.''
From 9 to 11 p.m., another veteran journalist - Sander Vanocur -
hosts ``Movies in Time,'' reserved for feature films like ``Gandhi'' and TV miniseries like ``George Washington.''
And after prime time from 11 p.m. to midnight, actor Edward Herrmann hosts ``Our Century, the History of Man in Conflict,'' with episodes like ``Warnings Ignored'' a review, through newsreel and commentary, of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Raven says some 30 percent of this material will be original.
So historians should be delighted, right?
Not if you ask Tim Maga, professor of history at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.
``For the moment, the history profession is somewhat skeptical of the mission objective of that entire channel,'' he says. ``Anyone who stands in front of a classroom as I do almost every day, trying to convince a very practical younger generation that history has worth, finds the job extremely difficult.
``We fear the History Channel will not help us much in the classroom,'' he continues, ``because it is trying to make as much money as it can and will appeal to some of the baser elements in television journalism. We think a lot of what we stand for in the profession will be downtrodden by business concerns.''
If ``business concerns'' means trying to reach lots of viewers, the History Channel is guilty, and Raven makes no bones about it. She hopes it will have enrolled between 500,000 and 1 million subscribers when it debuts.
``In the documentary area,'' she says ``our No 1 criterion is: Is it good television? The No. 2 objective is presenting history accurately, bringing perspective to an issue. Does it include new evidence and good research?. Movies can't just be a love story set during the Korean War. It has to capture the times, like the TV series `Shogun' or `War and Remembrance.' ''
SOME movies are exactly what Maga is worried about. He cites the 1976 film ``The Wind and the Lion'' about Morocco in 1906, starring Sean Connery.
``It had dates on the bottom of the screen and looked very historically accurate,'' says Maga, ``but it was utter nonsense. Films have been doing that for some time.''
But Raven points out that the History Channel's format calls for a roundtable discussion after some of the movies by a panel of historians and other specialists. If there are inaccuracies, she says, the experts won't hesitate to cite them, so viewers will not be misled.
``We just taped one miniseries called `Robert Kennedy and His Times,' '' Raven notes. ``Jack Newfield is portrayed as an adviser to Robert Kennedy, and afterwards Newfield himself comes on, with others - among them Sander Vanocur, who knew Robert Kennedy.''
Meanwhile historians, as Maga puts it, are ``watching and waiting with interest, but with concern.''