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History: A Bright Future with an Alive Past

This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on March 17, 1999. All rights reserved.

The approaching year 2000 and the aging of the baby

boomers are opportunities — not bogeymen — in the view of

Libby Haight O’Connell, vice president for historical alliances and

historian-in-residence at cable television’s History Channel.

"History has an increasingly visible future," O’Connell says,

comparing the year 2000 with the last time our calendar arrived at

a big round number. "If we look at what happened in the United

States at the turn of the century, we see an increased interest in

history. Also, people become more interested in history as they get

older. The baby boomers, when they get to be over 35, start to see

themselves as part of the historical process, Partly it’s because

their parents are getting older, or are no longer with us. The World

War II veterans, people in their 70s and 80s, are disappearing. That’s

why we’ll be doing a Save Our History program on World War II."

O’Connell is the keynote speaker at "Ideas into Action: History

for a New Millennium," the sixth annual, day-long New Jersey History

Issues Convention that takes place Saturday, March 20, at the Woodrow

Wilson School, Princeton University. The convention is sponsored by

the Advocates for New Jersey History and co-sponsored by two dozen

New Jersey organizations concerned with the state’s heritage. The

co-sponsors include archaeological and genealogical societies; museums,

libraries, and archives throughout the state; and the New Jersey Council

for the Humanities.

Interviewed by telephone from her History Channel office, O’Connell

gives a capsule version of the remarks she intends to present at the

convention and reveals her reverence for history. "I’ll talk about

how history has to be handled with integrity because it is all of

our voices," she says. "History is not just a commodity, it’s

an inheritance."

O’Connell sees history as an inescapable element in the lives of all

people, and as an enjoyable presence, if handled properly. "People

say that history is irrelevant, but history is the story of the human

condition. We are all part of that; there’s no way to divorce it from

our daily life. The way you get people to care about history is not

to consign it to the academic world, but to open it through TV, museums,

and public sites for visitors, and to make it come alive to people

who thought it belonged in dusty textbooks.

"I’m proud to be associated with the History Channel," she

continues. "I have the biggest classroom in the world; that’s

an exaggeration, of course. One of the things that makes this job

meaningful is making history enjoyable. History is not like eating

spinach. It’s like opening a new door to the excitement of the past.

It’s for people of all ages."

O‘Connell was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on a

historically significant date, George Washington’s birthday, in 1954.

"History was part of our every day life," she says, explaining

that her father was a history professor at Lehigh University. History

became the profession of both children in the family. O’Connell’s

brother teaches history at Lake Forest Country Day School in Illinois.

O’Connell’s first job, at age 19, was as an interpreter in costume

at Plymouth Plantation on Cape Cod. "That’s when I decided I had

to go into history as a career," she says. Educated at the University

of Virginia, she chose as her Ph.D thesis topic an investigation of

legal change from England to Virginia in the 17th century. She has

taught history at Long Island University and has served as president

of Raynham Hall Museum on Long Island.

Married to an attorney and investment banker in the media and communications

business, O’Connell is the mother of 17-year-old Charlie, and 14-year-old

Lucy. Both of them love history, O’Connell says, though Charlie wants

to be philosopher. The family lives on Long Island.

O’Connell joined A&E, the History Channel’s parent company, as a consultant

in 1993, and then moved on to the History Channel, after its founding

in 1995. "I had no background in television when I started,"

she says. "During the interview they asked me what TV programs

I watched. I stumbled around, and then said that I didn’t watch television

very much. I was sure I wouldn’t get the job. Finally, one of the

men in the room said, `That’s okay. We have lots of people here who

know about TV’." O’Connell’s department has grown to consist of

four full-time employees, three part-timers, and free lancers, as

necessary. Including O’Connell, there are three Ph.D historians in

the group.

A division of A&E Television Networks, the History Channel is a joint

venture of the Hearst Corporation, ABC, and NBC. It transmits 24 hours

a day, and has almost 56 million subscribers. Programming is aimed

primarily at adults aged 25 to 54, and is devoted primarily to American

history. The enterprise describes itself by saying, "The History

Channel reveals the power and passion of history as an inviting place

where people experience history personally and connect their own lives

to the great lives and events of the past. The History Channel is

the only place `Where the Past Comes Alive.’" In a campaign launched

in December the channel identifies itself as "The Official Network

of Every Millennium."

The History Channel has set itself a daunting task: breathing vitality

into past events, while remaining faithful to the known facts. It

enlivens its archival materials visually by active camera work, zooming

in or by scanning over a historical graphic. It uses landscapes to

good effect, gaining a sense of activity, for instance, by showing

the sea beating on an empty beach before giving an account of Cortez’

arrival in Mexico, or by showing soft-focus figures on horseback,

or generic forest scenes.

A sampling of three shows that appeared on the History Channel within

the past month — "The Underground Railroad", from the

Save Our History series; "Mexico," a four-hour look at Mexican

history; and "Free a Man to Fight," a documentary about women

who served in military capacities during World War II — reveals

both the capabilities of television and television’s self-imposed

limitations. The "Free a Man" program is distinguished by

its frankness. This valuable document captures the reactions of women

active in World War II and shows their courage as they confronted

the prejudices of the period — prejudices against women, against

blacks, against fraternization between enlisted personnel and officers,

and against homosexuals. Sympathetically, it shows the pride of the

women interviewed at accomplishing things beyond their dreams. It

is a valuable primary source, despite its lack of exhaustive interviews

with any single participant.

However, even the History Channel is only television. I say this as

one who watches TV only very selectively, gets impatient even with

the PBS "News Hour," and sometimes turns off "Live from

Lincoln Center." Although the three History Channel programs I

saw deal with important issues, the approach, more often than not,

was, to my mind, bland and superficial, more pious than penetrating,

and more soporific than stimulating. A bevy of talking heads insulated

from each other make presentations in sound bites; the experts rarely

converse or argue. And we know from the "News Hour" that historians

can disagree. A critical approach is, most of the time absent, although,

for instance, in the series on Mexico, scholar Robert Himmelich y

Valencia doubts the generally accepted figure of 20,000 human sacrifices

in a four-day period in 1494. "What do you do with 20,000 cadavers

minus a heart?" he asks pointedly.

O’Connell cites various elements that go into program-making decisions

at the History Channel, but adds a disclaimer: "I advise the programming

group; I do not make decisions," she says. When it comes to programming,

she explains, "First comes the question: Is it a good story? Does

it have the narrative flow that TV needs? Many things in history are

perfect for TV, particularly stories that describe a struggle —

the discovery of penicillin, crossing the Oregon trail, the Trojan

war. Also, we must have primary sources and good visuals, things that

enable us to tell an important story in a compelling way. The people

who watch the channel are not professionals. They did not necessarily

love history in high school, but now that they’re over 25, they find

that history has a resonance in their lives that they have not felt


Among O’Connell’s responsibilities are programs that

reach out to entities beyond television. The Save Our History Project,

which she oversees, is intended as a resource for schools. "We’ve

just finished The Underground Railroad for the Save Our History Project,"

she says. "We’re very pleased with the way audiences and teachers

have responded. We develop materials to accompany the programs —

primary materials, vocabulary, and enrichment materials. About 80,000

teachers have requested materials for `The Star Spangled Banner.’"

Released in December, and hosted by Roger Mudd, "The Star Spangled

Banner," a program in the Save Our History series, included interviews

with experts in the fields of military history, flag history, textile

conservation, as well as other notable figures. To be released in

the fall, in the Save Our History Project, is "The Declaration

of Independence," which, like "The Star Spangled Banner,"

treats both history and preservation.

"The documentaries are a resource," says O’Connell. "We

recommend that teachers use just part of the program and incorporate

it into their discussion and their curriculum." Documentaries

are often aired at 3 a.m. or 6 a.m. to give teachers a chance to tape

them for later use.

In addition to the schools, O’Connell has forged an alliance with

the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Since the beginning

of the History Channel there has been an annual program featuring

the most endangered historic places in the United States. "Working

together," she says about the History Channel’s collaboration

with the National Trust, "we’ve been able to rescue some of these

places. What we did was help raise awareness."

Rescued as a result of the television publicity have been the tugboat

Hoga, which was active at Pearl Harbor; the Congressional Cemetery

in Washington, DC; and New Hampshire’s Wentworth Hotel. The next program,

scheduled for June 17, features 11 sites in jeopardy. O’Connell already

knows what’s on the list, but she’s not talking until after the press

announcement on June 14.

The History Channel seems to have found a winning approach. After

its highest-rated month ever in January it chalked up a 17 percent

increase in prime time ratings in February. Although the channel’s

target audience is adults, children also have started watching. "Most

of our audience is over 25," O’Connell says, "but kids watch,

too. They watch with their families. We know that kids watch because

they write, and they write spontaneously." Kids often request

information, O’Connell says and when a letter from a child to the

History Channel pops into her mind, it becomes clear both that the

independent youngster trusts the History Channel, and that he has

received no adult advice about his letter. "Please send me,"

the letter says, "everything you know about American presidents."

— Elaine Strauss

History Issues Convention, New Jersey Historical Commission,

Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, 609-292-6062. "Ideas

Into Action: History for a New Millennium." Keynote by Libby O’Connell;

a panel on history and the Open Space Amendment passed by voters last

fall; and legislators’ panel chaired by former assemblywoman Maureen

Ogden. Preregister. $22; $17 students and seniors. Saturday, March

20, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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