‘No turkeys, no dullness’: History programming and the ambiguous art of factual commissioning

Title‘No turkeys, no dullness’: History programming and the ambiguous art of factual commissioning
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Zanatta, S.
Affiliation (1st Author)Queen Mary University of London (UK)
Section or WGMedia Production Analysis Working Group
DateWed 26 June
Slot CodeMPAW2a
Slot Code (Keyword)MPAW2a
Time of Session11:00-12:30
Session TitleFilm production
Submission ID6608

Any television surfer can easily notice that historical narratives have become very fashionable as history programming made for television and new thematic channels have exponentially increased in the last two decades. The paper will aimed to analyze how the small screen has actively supplied what Vivian Sobchack described as «a peculiarly novel “readiness” for history among the general population» (1996: 4) and will approach this topic from a national (the British television broadcasting) and production perspective. In particular, the reflection will deepen the understanding of the commissioning process considered as a key moment within which the selection of the (potential) historical narratives takes place and will ask how and why specific topics, forms and contributors are “put forward” and endorsed. The paper theoretically draws both on the few contributions that have focused on the development and commissioning process for documentaries, feature films, radio content, etc. (among others: Ahlkvist 2001; de Jong 2008; Zoellner 2009) and on the recent academic interest in the recollection of the past flourished on television (Bell and Gray 2010; Cannadine 2004; de Groot 2009; Gray and Bell 2013). Therefore, my discussion is based upon three main lines of research: a brief overview of the purposes and functions of the commissioning process itself and of the main roles involved at this stage; an analysis of the key elements (formal and informal routines, rhetorics, requirements) that inform the commission of a history programme in order to recognize peculiarities and aspects of resemblance between commercial and public service broadcasting; a final reflection on how organizational strategies along with individual attitudes have eventually challenged the role of the so called “specialist factual” in the British television market. The paper discusses the first findings of a larger post-doctoral project about History on television and is methodologically based on qualitative techniques, namely in-depth interviews (not only with factual/history commissioners from BBC, ITV, C4, UKTV, etc. but also with creative directors, heads of development, executive producers from the indie sector) and document analysis (official strategy documents, commissioning briefs, press interviews, material about the programmes commissioned, etc.).

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