History on television

Authored by: Ann Gray

The Routledge Companion to British Media History

Print publication date:  September  2014
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415537186
eBook ISBN: 9781315756202
Adobe ISBN: 9781317629474


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In the late twentieth century the small world of television professionals and pundits was driven to comment on a surprise phenomenon witnessed in British television. In October 2001 John Willis, the former Director of Programmes for Channel 4 and the Director of Factual and Learning at the BBC, declared that “History programing is one of the few thriving sectors of the electronic media … Given lift-off by the helium of David Starkey and Simon Schama. TV history is hot” (Willis, 2001). History television was compared to the spate of gardening programs that at the time dominated the schedules and referred to as ‘the new gardening’ or in fashion jargon, ‘the new black’. The new millennium seemed to be an apposite time to herald this fascination with the past, but the seeds of the television history boom had, in fact, been sown several years earlier. A notable year was 1995, which saw the launch of the History Channel and in the UK the foundation of the BBC’s dedicated History Unit. A portent of things to come was the transmission that year on Channel 4 of Landscapes (1995) presented by the author of the book of the same name, a then unknown and rather awkward presenter, the historian Simon Schama who was later to become one of the stars in the TV history galaxy. Two years later in 1997 Channel 4 split the History Department from the more general Documentary Unit rendering it more independent in commissioning and thereby acknowledging the increasing significance of history programing to the Channel. These changes in satellite and terrestrial television were also reflected in the independent production sector where new companies were being established, a number of which specialized in history programing.

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