I subscribe to email lists from two slightly overlapping groups that research the history of Revolutionary America: academic historians and reenactors. And both have been aghast at the History Channel’s America: The Story of US series.
I’ve read complaints about major simplifications and omissions (perhaps unavoidable in boiling any major historical shift down to an hour), inaccuracies, lack of perspective, use of network celebrities and politicians as commenters with no expertise in the subject, beards on eighteenth-century faces, Continental Army uniforms on Lexington common, and muskets missing the parts that actually make them fire.
I haven’t seen the show myself. When I have time, I might watch the Revolution episode and “live-blog” it here. Given the advance word, I can’t say I’d go in with high hopes.
The New York Times business pages just offered another reason to be dubious about this series: overlap between content and advertising.
Early in the first installment of “America: The Story of Us,” the 12-hour documentary series on the History cable channel that began on April 25 and covers 400 years of United States history, an actor depicting a British soldier bumps into another depicting Paul Revere, and the narrator Liev Schreiber says, “When revolution comes to North America, Revere will be at the center of it.”So actors appear in and narrate the series while historians appear in the commercials. Isn’t that the wrong way around?
Viewers might be momentarily confused when the screen goes dark, signaling a commercial break, only to light up again with men dressed in colonial garb on the cobblestone streets of Boston. The scene cuts to a bow-tied historian named K. C. Johnson [whose specialty is the Lyndon Johnson administration], who tells an interviewer, “American colonies before the revolution existed for the economic good of the mother country,” and then to another historian, Steve Gillon [who also specializes in 20th-century politics and works for the History Channel], who adds, “The British used money as a way of keeping the Americans down.” Then, to a triumphant flourish of music, the Bank of America logo appears, along with the screen text, “Fueling progress, creating opportunity, building on our heritage.”
The first half of the two-minute spot, produced by the History Channel for Bank of America, the sponsor of the series, reveals the historical significance of the Massachusetts Bank, founded in 1784 and counting among its customers Paul Revere and John Hancock (and, owing to a series of acquisitions, part of Bank of America’s historical DNA). . . . The History Channel is producing 12 two-minute videos for Bank of America, each beginning in the same era as the episode, then jumping to a current example of the bank’s civic-mindedness.
The same article reports that the series premiere drew “the largest audience in the network’s history.” No doubt fueled by the bank “highlighting it on the Bank of America Web site and by showing trailers on video monitors in more than 1,000 bank branches.” For folks following the money:
- Estimated production cost of America: The Story of US because of its digital imaging: $15m.
- Approximate amount Bank of America is paying on the related advertising campaign: $5m.
- Amount Bank of America paid earlier this year to settle charges that it failed to disclose significant information about its takeover of Merrill Lynch: $150m.
- Amount Bank of America borrowed from the federal government in 2008 and early 2009, a third of which went to pay bonuses at Merrill Lynch: $45,000m.