And cable compete to show America's past

TUNING IN TO HISTORY PBS

October 09, 1994|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

One of the biggest battles in the television wars of 1994 is between PBS and cable TV, which both want history to be their future. They are fighting over who is going to be television's chief teller of tales from the American past.

That might not seem like such a big deal, but it is -- and not just for the combatants. Because TV is so central to shared memory, their fight is ultimately about nothing less than our sense of where we came from, who we are and where we might go.

PBS and cable have two very different ideas about history, and they go head-to-head this week -- PBS offers a 4 1/2 -hour profile of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, titled "FDR," and Ted Turner's TBS channel counters with a six-hour documentary on American Indians, "The Native Americans."

PBS is betting most of its resources this season on the claim that it is the place to turn to for history.

"There are different strains of programming at PBS, but first of all is history -- bringing history alive," said PBS President Ervin S. Duggan while previewing public television's fall lineup. "FDR" and Ken Burns' recently concluded "Baseball" are the centerpieces of Duggan's claim that PBS is the nation's premier video historian.

"Baseball is not just about baseball. It is a marvelous lens through which Ken Burns views the history of America and the American people. . . . It pretends to be about baseball, but it is about deeper and more profound things. 'FDR' is history told in a similarly compelling way," he said.

When it comes to telling American history, PBS has had triumphs in the past decade or so -- for example, "The Civil War" from Burns in 1990, "Eyes on the Prize" in 1986, and "Vietnam: A Television History" in 1983 -- but those triumphs have been relatively few.

In recent years, cable has started getting into the history business in a big way. And, in recent months, it's been history as presented on cable that's been getting the audiences and the critical raves.

In June, the Discovery channel produced a special that stood above the pack of 50th anniversary D-Day remembrances, "Normandy -- The Great Crusade," with Charles Durning as narrator.

In July, it was TBS' "Moon Shot," a look at America's space program from the inside, which was aired -- and critically hailed -- on the 25th anniversary of the moon landing.

And in August, Discovery set a ratings record with its four nights of "Watergate," a brilliant co-production with the BBC. The program examined events that started with the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in 1972 and led to the resignation of Richard Nixon in August 1974.

As Americans commemorated these important dates in history, it was cable they turned to for the experience of leafing through the video scrapbook. What was striking was how noncompetitive PBS was with its anniversary productions.

In the future, the competition from cable is going to get even more keen.

In January, A&E is launching the History Channel, devoted to history 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"We're making a slight revision in history," said Dan Davids, senior vice president and general manager of the History Channel. "From now on, the place for history on TV will be the History Channel."

It appears, however, that PBS is not going to give up without a fight. Its biggest weapon is "The American Experience," the documentary history series produced by WGBH, the public television station in Boston.

"FDR" is an "American Experience" production. On Nov. 9, the series will offer "The Battle of the Bulge," to mark the 50th anniversary of that World War II event. The series' biggest effort will be shown in May -- three nights of "The Way West," by Ric Burns, brother of Ken Burns and producer of "The Donner Party" for PBS in 1992.

The difference between what cable and PBS are doing with history is deep; it cuts to the heart of what's known as "culture wars" -- a topic regularly debated in the media under the heading of political correctness.

Pat Mitchell, senior vice president at TBS, explains how her producers approached "The Native Americans" project.

"When we were given the mandate to produce a documentary series telling the history of native peoples, we convened a group of native peoples' advisers and said, 'How do we do this? How do we make this different and important?'

"And they said: 'Well, first of all, no Anglo historians, anthropologists or ethnologists. For once, let native peoples tell their own stories.' So, that's what we did."

Until fairly recently, the story that usually got told was of the dominant or most powerful group, and it was presented as the truth. In America, that was the white, male, Eurocentric version of events: "Columbus, the brave and sainted explorer,found America in 1492."

In the 1960s, that started to change, with demands by various ethnic groups -- especially African-Americans -- that their history and culture be taught and valued. The rise of feminism added another set of stories to the mix, based on gender.

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