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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
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
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
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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