J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, May 07, 2010

Bank of America: The Story of US?

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.”

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.
So actors appear in and narrate the series while historians appear in the commercials. Isn’t that the wrong way around?

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:


JQuig said...

I always thought the Bank of America started out as the Bank of Italy in America and made a name for itself after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.

J. L. Bell said...

That's correct. But in recent years Bank of America has bought Fleet Bank, which had bought BayBank, which had bought the corporate successor to the Massachusetts Bank, founded in 1784. Therefore, Bank of America now claims that part of its business goes back to the very early republic.

Tess said...

Don’t worry, J.L., you didn’t miss much. Yes, I understand the pinch of a one or two-hour time frame, but some things really needed to be added or changed.
When I saw the commercials, I was thrilled and immediately set the DVR. But as my family and I sat down to watch the first episode, we were instantly overtaken by an assault of ridiculous inaccuracies and strange omissions, one of which was that John Carver was the first governor of Plymouth Plantation. He, however, died in the initial, disease-stricken winter, and so William Bradford was chosen to take command.
Still we continued the episode, and what I saw was simply appalling, an abomination to history and historians alike, and it left my family disappointed and disgusted, saying to each other, ‘We could have written a better episode.’ My family and I are hardcore, history junkies, and although I cannot avow to the fact that we know everything there is to know about early, New England history, we know quite a bit and are proud to say we are Massachusettians.
The Lexington part was completely wrong, no mention of the unruly, Redcoat soldiers charging the common and shouting ‘huzza!’ or Capt. Parker’s order to ‘disperse’ because the militiamen were outnumbered. In addition, it failed to even give Concord Bridge a passing remark. Vital characters were left out, and even the leading, English commanders. (And--much to my mother’s aggravation--the narrator repeatedly mispronounced Concord.)
But I should have foreseen how the episode would all go down. Earlier, while on the midnight ride, Paul Revere stopped to utter his most celebrated but most inaccurate quote: ‘The BRITISH are coming.’ That was all too much. That was the red flag of exactly what kind of detail the rest of the episode was to produce.
We did finish the badly constructed and highly dramatized two-hour show, but will not be watching the remainder of the series.(As it was, we had to turn off the Westward Expansion episode after five minutes.)
And to think, what exactly is the History Channel’s main expertise?

Robert S. Paul said...

I'm looking forward to you live-blogging this, and I hope you do. I can't watch it again, because I'll have an aneurysm.

Hopefully you'll be able to remain more calm.

George Lovely said...

Tess used the one word I would have used to described what little I saw of this series...appalling.

History Channel, feh.

Roger Fuller said...

While this comment might be applicable to mass media in general, I can tell you, as somebody who has worked with The History Channel both in my employment, as well as a reenactor, historical accuracy is to The History Channel as dancing is to architecture. The History Channel's main aim is to sell commercial airtime by filling up the void with affirmations of the same old saws and urban legends we have all grown up with. People don't like finding their long-held cherished beliefs are wrong. It's like getting one's favorite model train set smashed. In a turbulent world with crumbling value systems, they want assurance and constancy in their lives. The History Channel gives it to them.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, it’s always wise to remember that when it comes to advertising-supported media, we viewers aren’t the customers; we’re the end product.

John L. Smith said...

I saw a little clip of this series tonight and one of the celebrity commentators was....Michael Douglas?? My question is....WHY?? I'm missing some kind of connection here....! :(

Anonymous said...

Michael Douglas... now it seems that much more credible

Trip said...

When was the last time the History Channel had something on that you actually wanted to watch? The entire channel is about reality tv now, Pawn Shops, Ax Men, Ice Road Truckers, etc, how are people learnign about history from those shows.

Tess said...

Weirdly enough, I saw Colin Powell and Donald Trump on the premiere, as well as Michael Douglas, but there were a few others who sounded more acquainted with American history like Henry Gates of Harvard University, Annette Reed of Rutgers University, and a former Navy SEAL/military historian. Their comments were really not very insightful, but I’m not ready to throw out the History Channel altogether.
I saw How The States Got Their Shapes, a two-hour analysis on some of the 50 States’ most controversial and unorthodox shapes. Deeply intriguing, it examined state boundaries from the happy little “accident” that gave Vermont its northern border to the Toledo War between Ohio and Michigan. Mostly it was a bloodless legal battle that ended with the coastal town of Toledo being handed to Ohio and the Northern Peninsula given to Michigan, but the bad feelings continued, even to modern times. The show also featured the forgotten but stormy account of the short-lived state of Franklin (now part of modern day Tennessee.)

Besides, I love Deadliest Catch and Ax Men.

pilgrimchick said...

Tess makes a lot of very good points about the series--I have actually avoided it because of the many things that she points out here.

A Note about Governor John Carver. Carver was chosen governor of the company following the creation and signing of what we call the "Mayflower Compact" in November, 1620. He continued to operate as such until the following spring, April I believe, when he fainted in the fields, was carried back to a shelter, and died days later, never recovering his speech. William Bradford was then chosen governor following the unfortunate incident. See William Bradford's "Of Plimoth Plantation" and Mourt's Relation, both contemporary references for verification.

debplugh said...

So glad I am not the only one who objects to this shameful mess.

bankalchemist said...

I actually contacted the key people managing this effort for BofA on the inside. I offered my expertise in bank formation and history as a polite way of trying to understand is there just no one left in the organization with a clue as to how it started. There is not and probably because there was no perceived need for a keeper of the story. While the executives met their marketing viewership objective it is clear they have no understanding of Banking History and buying on does not give you rights to its lineage. The effort did little to define the true contributions that BofA had on the banking fundamentals most Americans enjoy today.