Making History

2016-10-19-making-historyAndy Fry analyzes the demand for history documentaries and looks at innovations in the genre.

Television audiences love history programming. Ratings for prime-time series such as Vikings, Wolf Hall, VersaillesRoots and Generation War prove that. Of course, these are all scripted series. So what does this mean for documentary producers? Is there still a market for factual history programs, or is this important part of the TV landscape suffering at the hands of fictionalized history?

“History documentary is still an important part of the mix,” says Mark Reynolds, the director of factual at BBC Worldwide. “But the growth in high-end historical drama means factual producers need to emulate what is happening in drama.”

David Royle, the executive VP of programming and production at Smithsonian Networks, is not troubled by the new wave of scripted historical shows. “The TV universe is so full of fabricated reality that it’s led to something of a backlash,” Royle says. “Today, a substantial number of viewers crave shows that are not just entertaining but also accurate and informative. Smithsonian Channel strives to meet that demand, and we are constantly looking for strong, dramatic history programs that contain new revelations.”

Danny Tipping, the director of programming and development at Sky Vision, likewise sees continued demand for history—though more for thematic TV than on terrestrial. “There are a few high-concept, big-budget history programs on free TV, but the majority of demand comes from the digital channels.”

One free-TV broadcaster that continues to make significant investments in history content is ZDF. Its commercial arm, ZDF Enterprises, meanwhile, “is selling more history than ever before,” says Ralf Rückauer, the VP of ZDFE.factual, citing examples such as The Ascent of CivilizationThe Celts: Blood, Iron & Sacrifice and Last Secrets of the Third Reich.

Rückauer says that there is a growing demand for history programming. “If we look back at the last couple of years, it seems that we are facing fundamental geopolitical and cultural changes: different religions, different values, the [widening] gap between rich and poor as well as old conflicts that seem to reappear suddenly. So people are looking for explanations.”

ZDF’s passion for history is echoed by its near neighbor and close collaborator, Austrian public broadcaster ORF. Tom Matzek, the deputy head of ORF’s Universum doc strand, says that the broadcaster’s commitment to the genre has increased significantly since the introduction in 2013 of the Friday night Universum History strand.  “We are airing history documentaries around 45 weeks of the year,” Matzek says.

In the wake of the rise of historical drama, ORF is not tinkering with the format of its history docs, which are typically 52 minutes in length, “but we are working with the fiction department, [using] some of their creative talent to improve our story­telling in history,” says Matzek.

Cedric Hazard, the head of international sales at ARTE Sales until last month, also sees elements of scripted storytelling having an effect on the doc world. “We have seen less reliance on talking heads and black-and-white archive footage and more emphasis on dramatic reenactments and colorized archive. More than ever you need strong stories, excitement and romance—not the exhaustive, encyclopedic approach of some more academic-style productions.”

BBC Worldwide’s Reynolds believes that distributors looking to invest in history docs need to ask a number of questions before taking a project on: “What is the point of telling this story in documentary form? Is there a new insight that will interest the audience? Are there new forms of technology that will help us tell the story in a different way?”

In many cases, the existence of a successful historical drama about the same subject can be a blessing, says Reynolds. “It means there is a cultural conversation around that subject matter, a kind of zeitgeist that can help factual producers with their own projects.”

He cites the example of The Vikings Uncovered, co-produced with PBS, NOVA/WGBH  Boston and France Télévisions. “This show uncovered a Viking site in Newfoundland, Canada. It wasn’t attempting to compete with HISTORY’s Vikings drama, but for people who were interested, it was a breakthrough in our understanding of the Viking expansion into North America.”

Regarding stylistic approach, Smithsonian’s Royle says there is no simple formula that guarantees success. “It all comes down to the quality of the storytelling and the choice of subject. History at its best is infused with a level of drama and surprises and characters that Hollywood would struggle to invent. Combine that with insights and context and you should have a winner.”

That said, Smithsonian Channel does have some basic rules of engagement, says Royle. “We are great believers in relevancy—creating historical content that plays off events on people’s minds. It can be programs that key off anniversaries or relate to popular cultural or news events. We enjoyed great ratings and critical success with Million Dollar American Princesses. It tells the true stories of the rich American women who married into the British and European aristocracy. We timed it to coincide with [the broadcast of] Downton Abbey and had Elizabeth McGovern [Downton’s Lady Grantham] presenting.”

Smithsonian Channel has also enjoyed success with more contemporary history programs such as Brook Lapping’s 9/11: Day That Changed the World and Ursula Macfarlane’s Paris Terror Attack: Charlie Hedbo. However, Royle adds, “We will only do these if we have special access to witnesses and powerful archival footage.”

Hooks are key, agrees Sky Vision’s Tipping. “An amazing piece of access or a great discovery are helpful, as is an event you can relate your show to. On top of that, you need to find new ways to tell old stories.” An example of that approach from Sky Vision is Mystery Files, which looked for answers to historical mysteries.

“It pays to have constant contact with academics and [to be familiar with] new forms of technology being used by historians to support their work,” Tipping adds.

Regarding the way technology can unlock stories, Tipping cites the example of The Lost Diary of Dr. Livingstone, a Sky Vision show that has aired on PBS in the U.S. and on National Geographic Channels internationally. “This show used spectral-imaging technology to decipher some faded and illegible notes in Dr. Livingstone’s last field diary,” says Tipping. “It’s a great example of how you can achieve new insights by applying technological innovations to historical artifacts.”

Smithsonian’s Royle cites a similar example. “Recently we had a program that hit the front pages of major newspapers, The Unknown Flag Raiser of Iwo Jima. The production company, Lucky 8, took one of the most famous photographs from World War II and used forensic science and some remarkable historical sleuthing to prove that one of the central characters was not who people thought he was. We’re bringing this film to MIPCOM. It’s a film that has changed the historical record.”

On the subject of style, ZDF Enterprises’ Rückauer says, “Often the question is, Am I using the appropriate stylistic technique in a way to tell my specific story the right way? If you want to paint an intimate portrait of Osama bin Laden’s personal life, for example, you can use painted images to create a more abstract or distant point of view. Whereas if you want to show what the daily life of the Celts looked like you will need more reenactments and give the audience a kind of ‘I was there’ feeling.”

On top of this, Rückauer continues, “there are always different tastes in different countries. In continental Europe, history programming is more fact-driven, whereas the U.K. audience prefers presenter-led storytelling and the U.S. taste is for more action-related and much faster content. If you co-produce history programs, like we just recently did with The Celts, you need to feed the demands of different markets and create hybrid programs that incorporate the elements requested.”

When it comes to cutting through the clutter, Rückauer says shows need something “that is new, outstanding and spectacular. So we rely on the latest historical and scientific findings only if there is enough proof to really rewrite history—such as new evidence that the Nazis were about to launch an atomic bomb (Last Secrets of the Third Reich), or [evidence] that the Wright Brothers were one of the first to conduct the first motorized flight but maybe not the first (First Flight: Conquest of the Skies), or the discovery of a subterranean tunnel underneath the pyramids of Teotihuacán near Mexico City (Teotihuacán’s Lost Kings).”

BBC Worldwide’s Reynolds offers a similar opinion, stating, “We can’t just tell the stories in the same way as we did before. We need to make it more dramatic and use the technology at our disposal to bring subjects to life.”

As an example, he cites the BBC’s What Lies Beneath franchise, which has covered topics such as Rome, Egypt and Stonehenge. “These shows use satellite archaeology and high-tech remote-sensing tools to peel back the layers of history,” says Reynolds. “Revelations are then presented using CGI animation.”

The big challenge, says Sky Vision’s Tipping, is finding new ways to engage with audiences. “In the past, you could have done a film about the best tanks or best planes in World War II. Today you’d probably have to rebuild them and get them running again. This is why science and engineering play a role in history programming.”

Smithsonian’s Royle concurs, noting, “There is always demand for programs that include science and new discoveries. We recently launched a major event, Behind the Lost Empires. It includes programs like Interspot’s Lost City of Gladiators, which revealed [the remains of] the only school for gladiators ever discovered outside Rome, and Pompeii: The Dead Speak, for which Lion Television gained special access to a team of forensic scientists who use CT scans to peer inside Pompeii’s plaster casts and study the bones within.”

Ancient Assassins is another title that delivers a unique spin on a well-worn subject, according to Barnaby Shingleton, director of factual and entertainment acquisitions at Sky Vision. “This is a story about elite fighting forces through history,” Shingleton says. “It combines dramatic reconstruction, documentary filming and expert testimony to tell a story that will resonate with audiences in most markets.”

Warfare isn’t the only subject that sells, however. “We are going to market with a ten-part series from Sky’s production team in Milan called Artists in Love. This looks at great unconventional romances, such as those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis.”

In terms of content, ORF stays away from some subjects, says Matzek, because other broadcasters have already covered them in detail. “ZDF is so strong in World War II, it doesn’t make sense for us to develop stories in that area. But we try to have a full range of epochs and approaches, from biopics to turning points in history. For us, variety is the key to success.”

Examples featured in the Universum History strand include Europe Divided: Cold War ChroniclesWinnetou: The Real Story and Gonsalvus: The Real Beauty and the Beast, a co-pro that saw ORF partner with epo-film, Smithsonian Networks and ARTE.

“As a small player we have to play to our strengths,” says Matzek, “so areas like espionage are an opportunity given Austria’s pivotal position in history. But as we build up our brand we aim to increase the number of partners and subjects we work with.”

ARTE France primarily deals in 52-minute documentaries, “though the channel has explored two-part productions in which one film deals with the history of a subject and the other looks at the current situation,” Hazard says. “It’s a way to understand what is going on in places like Korea and Iran.”

The channel is also exploring 26-minute episodes as a way to reach new audiences. “We made a series called The Great Greek Myths that is entirely animation,” says Hazard. “It focuses on the subjects of power, sex and betrayal that are a key part of those myths. We are also working on a series that looks at historical characters such as Jack the Ripper.”

ORF’s Matzek says his audience seems to prefer seeing a new subject every week. “We find the audience drops quite a lot if we schedule a three-part series week after week. So for us, a multipart series works better if each episode can be aired as a stand-alone story. That way we can broadcast it across the year. Or we may broadcast two episodes back to back the same night.”

Playing with episode length is also helping producers target younger audiences. After all, history programming has long been regarded as being inherently older-skewing. To attract younger audiences, Smithsonian’s Royle advises, “Start with color. We do believe there is a younger audience for his­tory, but young viewers have a low tolerance for black and white. We are so convinced of the importance of color that we are making a commitment to producing quality colorized archival shows.”

“We are also convinced younger viewers don’t want to feel they are being lectured,” Royle continues. “We’ve enjoyed success with a raw style of filmmaking—programs that don’t have talking heads and narration but let the footage speak for itself. Tom Jennings’s MLK: The Assassination Tapes is an example. It won the Peabody Award, and we are planning shows in the same style. I believe it worked because it has the same rawness you see on the internet—it feels like history unedited.”

Sky Vision’s Tipping says computer gaming might provide a way to entice younger viewers into the genre. “Games like Assassin’s Creed are set in very realistic settings. So maybe there is an opportunity to create connections with games that bring younger viewers to history programming.”

Hazard, meanwhile, calls for producers to use “a quicker pace, fast-cut editing, animation and graphics. It’s almost like introducing the aesthetic of a video game.”

In response to changing viewing habits, Rückauer says ZDF  has produced short content for digital platforms. “We recently launched season two of Moments of History, which is now a library of 200 three- to four-minute short films on central themes of history. In addition, if a client requests more than just a linear 52-minute program, ZDFE.factual can provide further material such as short films out of our Contunico [clips] library or even VR. We are just about to build up a library of VR 360° shots, and we started with a special on volcanoes.”

“We’re also moving into VR,” says Smithsonian’s Royle. “And although our first VR productions are not history-based, it’s only a matter of time.”