TUNING IN TO HISTORY PBS and cable compete to show America's past


One of the biggest battles in the television wars of 1994 is between PBS and cable TV, which both want history to be their future. They are fighting over who is going to be television's chief teller of tales from the American past.

That might not seem like such a big deal, but it is -- and not just for the combatants. Because TV is so central to shared memory, their fight is ultimately about nothing less than our sense of where we came from, who we are and where we might go.

PBS and cable have two very different ideas about history, and they go head-to-head this week -- PBS offers a 4 1/2 -hour profile of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, titled "FDR," and Ted Turner's TBS channel counters with a six-hour documentary on American Indians, "The Native Americans."

PBS is betting most of its resources this season on the claim that it is the place to turn to for history.

"There are different strains of programming at PBS, but first of all is history -- bringing history alive," said PBS President Ervin S. Duggan while previewing public television's fall lineup. "FDR" and Ken Burns' recently concluded "Baseball" are the centerpieces of Duggan's claim that PBS is the nation's premier video historian.

"Baseball is not just about baseball. It is a marvelous lens through which Ken Burns views the history of America and the American people. . . . It pretends to be about baseball, but it is about deeper and more profound things. 'FDR' is history told in a similarly compelling way," he said.

When it comes to telling American history, PBS has had triumphs in the past decade or so -- for example, "The Civil War" from Burns in 1990, "Eyes on the Prize" in 1986, and "Vietnam: A Television History" in 1983 -- but those triumphs have been relatively few.

In recent years, cable has started getting into the history business in a big way. And, in recent months, it's been history as presented on cable that's been getting the audiences and the critical raves.

In June, the Discovery channel produced a special that stood above the pack of 50th anniversary D-Day remembrances, "Normandy -- The Great Crusade," with Charles Durning as narrator.

In July, it was TBS' "Moon Shot," a look at America's space program from the inside, which was aired -- and critically hailed -- on the 25th anniversary of the moon landing.

And in August, Discovery set a ratings record with its four nights of "Watergate," a brilliant co-production with the BBC. The program examined events that started with the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in 1972 and led to the resignation of Richard Nixon in August 1974.

As Americans commemorated these important dates in history, it was cable they turned to for the experience of leafing through the video scrapbook. What was striking was how noncompetitive PBS was with its anniversary productions.

In the future, the competition from cable is going to get even more keen.

In January, A&E; is launching the History Channel, devoted to history 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"We're making a slight revision in history," said Dan Davids, senior vice president and general manager of the History Channel. "From now on, the place for history on TV will be the History Channel."

It appears, however, that PBS is not going to give up without a fight. Its biggest weapon is "The American Experience," the documentary history series produced by WGBH, the public television station in Boston.

"FDR" is an "American Experience" production. On Nov. 9, the series will offer "The Battle of the Bulge," to mark the 50th anniversary of that World War II event. The series' biggest effort will be shown in May -- three nights of "The Way West," by Ric Burns, brother of Ken Burns and producer of "The Donner Party" for PBS in 1992.

The difference between what cable and PBS are doing with history is deep; it cuts to the heart of what's known as "culture wars" -- a topic regularly debated in the media under the heading of political correctness.

Pat Mitchell, senior vice president at TBS, explains how her producers approached "The Native Americans" project.

"When we were given the mandate to produce a documentary series telling the history of native peoples, we convened a group of native peoples' advisers and said, 'How do we do this? How do we make this different and important?'

"And they said: 'Well, first of all, no Anglo historians, anthropologists or ethnologists. For once, let native peoples tell their own stories.' So, that's what we did."

Until fairly recently, the story that usually got told was of the dominant or most powerful group, and it was presented as the truth. In America, that was the white, male, Eurocentric version of events: "Columbus, the brave and sainted explorer,found America in 1492."

In the 1960s, that started to change, with demands by various ethnic groups -- especially African-Americans -- that their history and culture be taught and valued. The rise of feminism added another set of stories to the mix, based on gender.

Today, different stories compete head-to-head, each with a claim on the truth. Accepting these perspectives as legitimate is called cultural diversity. Scholars call it postmodern history -- the recognition that history is just stories, stories that try to make sense of events from certain points of view.

Different groups in a society have different stories to tell.

Cable, with its many niche channels, is a perfect fit for this cultural diversity, and "The Native Americans" is a textbook example.

"One of the courageous elements of this series is that it is an attempt to allow Native Americans to tell the story about themselves through their own eyes and through their own voice and to exhibit all of the things that make us real people," said Darrel Robes Kipp, a council member of the Blackfeet tribe who holds a doctorate in linguistics from Harvard and appears in "The Native Americans."

George Burdeau, the Native American director of the series, added: "When you recognize the fact that tribal histories go back 30,000 or 40,000 years, that's a tremendous amount of history. There are so many new and diverse stories that we have to tell. And we've just begun to scratch the surface."

Jane Fonda tells another of those stories in "Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee," a docudrama she produced for husband Ted Turner's TNN cable channel. The film, part of "The Native Americans" project, is based on the book of the same name by Mary Crow Dog and premieres Oct. 16.

"There's something about this particular moment in history where it's actually possible for a lot of complicated reasons for white Europeans and the Native Americans to reach their hands together and come up with something quite new and different," Fonda said.

"You know, we tell the Germans to do it. We tell other people, 'Look at your holocausts and 'fess up to them.' That's how you don't repeat history. And now we're beginning to do it ourselves. And, fortunately, we're doing it together."

Fonda and Turner said they're comfortable with the flak such PC talk can draw.

"What's wrong with being politically correct?" Turner said. "I'd rather be correct than politically incorrect. I don't like being incorrect."

As for PBS, if you've seen "Baseball," you've seen its basic

approach to history. The Burns brothers and most of what's on "The American Experience" comes straight out of an approach to American history called the "myth-symbol" school.

Myth-symbol historians talk a lot about the "American mind" and the "national psyche." They like to tell us what they believe is in the American imagination and how such symbols as the American frontier or the Green Monster at Fenway Park resonate therein. "Resonate" is a very big word with myth-symbolists.

Postmodernists say there is no one American mind; different symbols mean different things to different people based on their race, gender, age, education and class background.

Postmodernists would point to the TV image of O. J. Simpson standing in handcuffs under a tree to make their point. They would argue that while the image might symbolize a suspect legitimately taken into police custody for many white viewers, to many black viewers, it symbolizes a lynching.

So much for one national psyche.

Myth-symbolists tend to view American history primarily through the eyes of white men of European descent and mainly tell the stories of the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, the Johnsons -- straight back to the Founding Fathers.

David Grubin, who wrote and produced "FDR," as well as "LBJ" two years earlier for PBS, says his documentary is a search to "find the man" who was FDR.

"I really wanted to find out what it takes to be president. What kinds of qualities do you need to do this job? . . . It's that quality of leadership that I was interested in," Grubin says.

The tendency is for myth-symbolists to study history from the top down, while postmodernists stress the view from the ground up.

The choice of perspective is yours this week and in coming months, as cable and public television battle over our past.


* "The American Experience" production, "FDR," airs at 9 Tuesday and Wednesday nights on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).

* "The Native Americans" airs at 8:05 Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights on cable channel TBS.

* "Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee" premieres at 8 p.m. Oct. 16.

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