History Channel knocks PBS off its pedestal
Published: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 19, 2006 at 10:15 p.m.
Nobody knows when it happened. But at some point in the last couple of years, the History Channel - long maligned as the Hitler Channel for its predictable and unimaginative programs - pulled even with PBS in ingenuity and quality.
'Lincoln' airs Saturday
What: Encore presentation of "Lincoln," which examines Abraham Lincoln, the emancipator of slaves, the man who held America together in its darkest days, but also a man who battled with depression.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: History Channel (Cox cable channel 47)
Now, with the arrival of "Lincoln," an astonishing three-hour look at the 16th president's battles with depression, the 10-year-old cable channel has moved decisively into the lead. And with the recent announcement of its most ambitious set of movies ever, there is no looking back.
While PBS' historical documentaries, led by its weekly series "The American Experience," show their age with their uniform look and feel, the History Channel has not been afraid to experiment with different forms.
"We're always looking for new ideas for how to present history," said its vice president of programming, Susan Werbe, last week at the semi-annual gathering of TV critics.
Take "Lincoln." Based on recent books that linked Abraham Lincoln's personal turmoil to his masterful leadership of the Union, the program employs an arresting style that puts the viewer inside the president's head. Gone is the voice of Edward Herrmann, the "Gilmore Girls" patriarch and ubiquitous narrator of the History Channel. There's no narration at all.
Instead of an endless montage of Civil War photographs, there is a shaky, hazy camera wandering through the backwoods where Lincoln's troubled youth played out, as well as the White House. These scenes are filmed as though we are looking through the president's eyes. The visuals provide a sort of emotional wallpaper that brings the talking heads into sharper relief as they explain how Lincoln was able to lead the nation out of its darkest moment while battling his own deepest demons.
Through "Lincoln" and other high-profile programs, the History Channel has become an example of how commercial success can be a spur to quality, rather than a detractor. It is a Top 20 network among all cable channels, and with 25-to-54-year-olds, it's in the Top 10. (Most nights, History is more popular than the network that birthed it, A&E.)
Its most sprawling and daring project to date will be unveiled this spring. "10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America," in the words of Werbe, will "tell the story of America in the span of 10 hours and do it with 10 independent filmmakers who have never worked with the History Channel before."
Werbe's first hire set the tone: Joe Berlinger, who had directed the almost embarrassingly candid documentary "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," in which the pioneers of death-metal rock have their mental and emotional baggage unpacked and repacked by a $40,000-a-month life coach from Kansas.
Berlinger agreed to serve as co-producer and, with Werbe, drew up a list of significant days in American history. They realized the series could not attempt to tell the comprehensive history of America. So they chose 10 watershed moments that could be told as stories.
Some are deceptively small-scale: "Einstein's Letter," for instance, concentrates on Leo Szilard, the Hungarian emigre who persuaded the famous physicist and pacifist to author a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging development of the atomic bomb.
"The thing that appealed to me was that these were such unusual, unexpected days," said Barak Goodman, who directed and produced "Einstein's Letter" with John Maggio. "So little had been done on most of these."
"We felt every director should bring their own personal stamp and that every show does not have to feel like one another," Berlinger said. "A lot of these people had not done historical films, and I thought that was important."
Indeed, the only limitation on "10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America" seems to be running time. Every film runs just under 46 minutes, longer than a typical one-hour network drama but almost too short to be considered a full-length documentary film.
Even familiar days are imbued with new perspective. A film by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner about the Scopes Monkey Trial is packed with little surprises, such as details of the once amiable relationship between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan and the film's provocative conclusion, which argues that Bryan, not Darrow, scored the major victory on that day in 1925.
"The Scopes trial is an event that obviously resonates to this day," Heilbroner said. "And yet the way it's been mythologized by films like 'Inherit the Wind' didn't represent the truth of it at all."
And in a unique visual created for the series, director Michael Epstein re-creates the Civil War battle at Antietam by taking still black-and-whites of re-enactors and putting them in motion.
It lends a strikingly verite touch to what is otherwise yet another war film set in the 1800s.
"10 Days" will premiere in April on the History Channel and will be released simultaneously on DVD.
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