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HISTORY IN THE MAKING Television: Today, the past is all the rage on cable's fast-growing History Channel, where the future also looks splendid.


NEW YORK -- Dan Davids could have been speaking figuratively when he said one day last week, "The History Channel is on fire." At the moment, though, he was being quite literal.

The History Channel was on fire. Smoke was billowing into its offices, forcing Davids, the network's general manager, and everyone else in the building to spill out onto East 45th Street.

The New York City Fire Department quickly showed up and ended the scare. Davids, assured that the History Channel was not yet history, could now continue on to lunch to discuss why his fledgling network is arguably cable industry's hottest property.

Since its launch in January 1995, the History Channel has been both marvel and vindication, especially for any history teacher who has ever witnessed a student's eyes glaze over. The network devotes 24 hours of programming a day to the presentation of historical subjects and figures. If that sounds like a sure way to bring a quick end to The Age of Television, nothing could be farther from the truth.

In a mere 18 months, the History Channel has built an audience of more than 20 million subscribers, easily making it one of the fastest growing cable networks in the last 10 years.

That's the History Channel's history. Its future looks rosier still. In Myers Reports' annual survey of the cable industry this year, cable operators said they were more likely to add the History Channel than any other service, including the Sci-Fi Channel, Turner Classic Movies, ESPN2 and scores of other networks available at any given moment.

TCI, which serves Baltimore, expects that it will be offering the History Channel to an additional 2 million subscribers nationally by the end of the summer.

"Of all the new channels that are coming, the History Channel was the most requested to be added to the Comcast system and we were happy to add it," said Mitchell Schmale, a spokesman for the Comcast systems in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, all of which now carry the History Channel.

Clearly, history sells on television, a notion that Davids and other executives with the Arts and Entertainment Networks suspected might be true in the summer of 1992 when they first considered beginning a new channel. The company's existing network, A&E;, with its combination of documentaries and sophisticated dramas, was already a cable success, reaching 65 million American households and hauling in numerous cable industry awards. Now, the company -- jointly owned by the Walt Disney Co.'s ABC unit, General Electric Co.'s NBC, and the Hearst Co. -- was ready to try to duplicate its success with a second network. But what would the theme be?

"We looked at a host of different concepts," said Davids, an executive with A&E; since its beginnings in 1984. "Not to bore you, but they ranged from everything from the Mystery Channel to a golf and tennis channel to a nautical channel."

In the end, though, Davids and his colleagues opted to stick with what they knew best. The A&E; network had run a number of documentaries that had attracted wide audiences, including "Civil War Journal," "Real West" and "Dinosaur."

Why not create a whole network with 24 hours of historical documentaries, biographies of historical figures and movies with historical content?

Surveys commissioned by A&E; supported the hunch. Half of those polled said they were more interested in history than they had been five years earlier. Two-thirds complained that television was doing too little to promote history, which had not always been the case.

In the Fifties and Sixties, the networks often devoted shows to historical events. But in the frenetic Eighties and Nineties, the mania for only the newest and latest information squeezed out the networks' willingness to look backward.

A&E; executives were convinced the networks were missing an opportunity. The phenomenal popularity of Ken Burns' Civil War series in 1990 gave them even more confidence.

"It said to us as programmers that you can examine any topic in history in a creative way and make it exciting and dramatic," said Abbe Raven, senior vice president of programming for the History Channel. "It fostered our belief that we could tackle any subject, even if there aren't moving pictures. It means that the topics we can cover are endless."

Liftoff for the new network was at 7 p.m. Jan. 1, 1995, with the first showing from the original series, "Automobiles," narrated by Edward Herrmann. (The first program: "The Corvette.")

Spanning time

Today, Raven says, original productions make up 40 percent of the programming. The rest are existing documentaries, movies and mini-series (including, recently, a presentation of the original "Roots").

World War II has been featured so much that at times the History Channel seemed in danger of becoming the "all Hitler, all the time" network. But the channel takes pains to span time, with shows on the ancient Egyptians to the Crusades through the Civil War, two world wars and Vietnam. Viewers tend to like conflict in every epoch, Raven says.

While moving pictures obviously do not exist from older periods, the History Channel has shown viewers plenty of archival footage from this century that contemporary viewers have likely never seen before, including scenes of the Romanov family before their overthrow and tank battles during World War I.

The documentaries tend to be informative and balanced if not necessarily provocative. That doesn't mean that the network hasn't been inventive. It recently showed a documentary in which the children of Holocaust survivors were brought together with the children of SS troops. It also showed a documentary on Canadian airmen who had escaped from the Buchenwald death camp but were unable to get anyone to listen to what they had witnessed there.

"What we hope to do is tell dramatic stories with a new slant of some kind," Raven said.

Looking ahead

Although the network focuses on the past, it also tries to be topical. This summer, it will do shows on the history of the Olympics. Next fall, in "November Warriors," it will inaugurate a series on American presidential campaigns, starting with George Washington's.

The network will also do a series of shows in which acidic #F commentator and author Gore Vidal will give his assessment of American presidents.

To add prestige to the network, the channel recruited veteran television newsmen Roger Mudd, who will be the host of a series called "History Alive," and Sander Vanocur, who interviews historians about the accuracy of movies about historical events.

Vanocur says he's been allowed complete freedom in his interviews. He chuckles as he remembers asking a Russian history professor the one question he knew would be on everyone's mind after a showing of the movie "Catherine the Great."

"I asked her if it was true that Catherine the Great had slept with a horse," Vanocur said. "She said, 'No, but she probably slept with everyone else.' "

Questions of journalistic independence were raised in a much more serious vein earlier this month as the History Channel found itself in the middle of its first, full-blown controversy. Word leaked out that the network was considering producing shows titled "The Spirit of Enterprise," each of which would examine the history of one major American corporation, including AT&T;, Dupont and General Motors. Funding for those shows would come from the corporations themselves.

Suddenly, the History Channel found itself under attack. "It showed very bad judgment on the part of people at History and A&E;," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education, who savaged the network in as many different forums as he could reach. "When they allow sponsors to help dictate editorial content of documentaries, they jeopardize the public's confidence in media."

Mudd and Vanocur, neither of whom was involved in the decision, said they were surprised by History's naivete. "These people aren't journalists, so I think that may have accounted for the project getting as far as it did," said Mudd. "Had there been a news structure there I think the warning flags would have been raised a lot earlier."

'Credibility gap'

The whole subject obviously continues to irritate Davids.

"I don't want to say too much about this because we're not going to win anything by talking about it," he said grimly.

He insisted that the network could have done the shows objectively, but recognized that it might never have been able to get over the impression that the content was stained.

"We thought we could do it in an objective manner but just because it had this appearance we said, 'Let's walk away,' " Davids explained. "That's what we did."

The quick decision to drop the project, he said, proved the channel's integrity, an assertion Chester seriously doubts.

"I think there is a credibility gap now," he said. "It was good that they canceled it, but they canceled it only because there was such a public outcry."

Still, the episode is not likely to keep viewers away from the History Channel, which is planning an ambitious fall season that will include "The Great Ships," a series that each week will examine a different sea vessel, from the dreadnoughts to the PT boats; "History Undercover," a series on espionage operations, and "True Action Adventures."

With the channel adding about a million new subscribers every month, Davids sees no reason to look back.

"The History Channel," he says, "is going to keep on making history."

Pub Date: 7/01/96

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