Friday, April 30, 2010

What History [Channel] Can Learn From ESPN

I have complained before that much of the programming on History (the cable network) has little or nothing to do with history. Such a complaint has become nearly as ubiquitous as the complaint that MTV's programming has little or nothing to do with music. I'll take it a step further: After enduring shows about UFOs, cryptids, and conspiracy theories for the better part of a decade, I no longer trust History to do history.

While I actually enjoy some of History's non-history shows, particularly The Universe and Life After People, I yearn for the quality historical programming that I used to be able to find (at least occasionally) on the channel. But, as I have lost my faith in History's ability to create such programming, I'm going to offer History some guidance: Learn from ESPN.

To celebrate its thirtieth anniversary, ESPN created 30 for 30, a documentary series in which acclaimed filmmakers (such as Steve James [Hoop Dreams] and John Singleton [Boyz N the Hood]) tell stories about people, events, and phenomena from the past three decades that have had a lasting impact on the world of sports. Twelve have aired so far, and each one has been outstanding. Riveting. Compelling. Informational. Edifying. ESPN 30 for 30 is the best thing to happen to basic cable since Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show.

I've identified three reasons why every single 30 for 30 installment has been fantastic:

  • ESPN has allowed skilled and experience filmmakers to tell stories that they are passionate about in a manner they see fit. Each film is different and reflects the style and gifts of the filmmaker.

  • Each film has very specific subject matter. Instead of documenting college football in the 1980s, Billy Corben told the story of the University of Miami's football program in the 1980s. Instead of telling Allen Iverson's life story, Steve James told the story of Iverson's 1993 trial for assault and its affect on the racially divided community of Hampton, Virginia. These films devote an hour or 90 minutes or two hours to subjects that deserve this much time but wouldn't otherwise get it.

  • All of these films address events that have happened in the past 30 years. Thus they all include interviews with people who experienced these events first-hand.

So here's what History needs to do: The once proud channel needs to produce a series of 90-minute documentaries, each of which is the work of a different filmmaker and each of which tells the story of a specific event that has taken place in the past 50 years. History probably can't attract the big name directors that ESPN has enlisted for the 30 for 30 series—who knows, maybe Ice Cube would make a movie for History—but the network certainly could attract documentary filmmakers with enough credibility and integrity to avoid subjects such as UFOs and Bigfoot and to create compelling films that will win back viewers like me. The purpose of the last-50-years rule is to ensure that each film includes first-hand accounts of the events it chronicles. (In the absence of first-hand accounts, History tends to assume that any significant historical event was the result of a conspiracy involving the Illuminati, Freemasons, and/or space aliens.)

There's my idea. Make it happen, History.


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