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A View from the Boardroom: World Congress of History Producers

By Carol Nahra

Winston Churchill conducted most of World War II from a warren of tiny rooms underneath the Treasury Building in London's Whitehall. Now an impressive museum, the Cabinet War Rooms was a suitably historic site for a reception during the World Congress of History Producers, held November 16 to 19. Indeed, the UK itself, given the vast array of creative history programming that has been produced here in recent years, couldn't be a more appropriate country to host a reflection on the state of the industry.

The congress kicked off with a session entitled "The Great Debate: Does Television Enhance or Diminish History?" Hosted by British father and son presenters Peter and Dan Snow, it ended up being mostly a celebration of the health of the history genre today. Over the last ten years history programming has diversified to an almost unimaginable extent, breaking away from the "tyranny of the archive film" to embrace a range of styles and techniques for bringing the past alive.

Taylor Downing, managing director and head of history for London's prolific Flashback Television, said that the programming boom in the last few years has prompted a society-wide interest in history, leading to increased visits to museums and stately homes and more graduates studying history. But like others on the panel, Downing agreed that the "great story" of World War II, which continues to dominate programming in the UK, isn't likely to last, as it becomes more distant past: "When it's your father, you're fascinated; when it's your grandfather, you're still interested; but when it's your great-grandfather, you start to look at it like it's ancient history." The audience overwhelmingly agreed by a show of hands that TV was over-obsessed with war, and that programming needed to move into new territories.

Following "The Great Debate" was a plenary session looking at trendspotting. In it, panelists agreed that the audience was "over the cocaine fix of the Hitler programs," and that new technology had brought us into a "major historical moment in the history of television." Audiences now seek more of an emotional connection and relevance to what they watch, rather than a simple chronology of the past. Panelists maintained that such programs as the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?, in which British celebrities have explored their family histories, were successful because they made such connections. Programs have to evolve in order to incorporate younger viewers, who, unlike their parents, do not have many defining moments in their lives. Peter Lovering, vice president of production and development at Discovery Channel UK, pointed out that audiences don't see programs as divided into different genres: "If we can break down those boundaries, it would make a huge difference." He described that with Discovery Communications' "portfolio" approach, every show needs to be engaging, intelligent and energetic, so that an inert viewer tuning in at the top of a program would be buzzing by the end of it.

Charles Maday, senior vice president of programming for the History Channel, USA, said that the megatrends facing program-makers today included the growth of the Internet, very short films and user generated content. On the flip side, and representing a different mindset, Maday said that another trend was higher production values among commissioned programs, with an increased dependence on CGI and HD. He also emphasized the ongoing struggle to find hosts that "pop."

Programming consultant and former Discovery Vice President Dan Salerno said that one of the difficulties in coming up with successful formats was that people tend to watch topics, rather than formats: "No one says, 'It's Wednesday night at 9; I think I could use a good dose of forensic history.'" Instead, Salerno said, audiences are more likely to tune in for a specific topic such as The Alamo.

Breakout sessions at the Congress focused on somewhat more narrow topics. In "What Muslims Want," panelists discussed the misrepresentation of Muslims as "gun-toting, bomb-toting misogynists," and the widespread alienation of Muslims from mainstream media. In "Keys to the Castle: The Secrets of Mastering Access," producer Norma Percy and her star archivist Declan Smith held the audience mesmerized with accounts of how they put together their multi-award winning Brook Lapping series, Israel and the Arabs: Elusive Peace and The Death of Yugoslavia. In describing how she secures interviews with leaders the world over, Percy said, "An iron rule is, anyone who is any good says no the first time."

While most people attending the conference seemed in agreement that the history genre was going through a healthy period, there also seemed to be a consensus that rapidly evolving technology meant that program makers were headed into very uncertain waters. A number of sessions tried to anticipate the history's future by getting on top of the technological revolution. "Out of the Box: Producing History for New Platforms" looked at new outlets, including broadband and mobile, and attempted to decipher some of the terminology. A session on Artificial Intelligence showed how the animation technology is being used to push the boundaries of creativity in historical documentaries.

Having splintered from the World Congress of Science Producers, the History Congress did struggle to secure commissioning editors from Channel 4 and BBC, both major sponsors of the Science Congress, held in Manchester the previous weekend. In fact, the Science event has been redubbed the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers, in a bid to move into other genres, notably history. So even history commissioning editors such as Channel 4's Ralph Lee and BBC's John Farren (editor of Timewatch) dutifully attended Manchester while ignoring London.

Nonetheless, a total of 400 delegates from over 30 countries worldwide did attend the History Congress, doing the deals that still make the event a staple on the calendar. Recognizing that the value of the congress lay largely in networking opportunities, the organizers scheduled plenty of lengthy breaks as well as opportunities for one-on-one pitching. For a complete schedule see

Carol Nahra is a journalist and documentary producer based in London. She can be reached at