The History of Television

More than just clips: doc series views medium as mirror of times

Commercial television often suffers from a bad rap—the term “vast wasteland” might ring a bell. But it soon will get some love from a public TV doc that takes its cultural legacy seriously.

Slated for spring 2009 or later, The History of Television (w.t.) will explore how primetime comedies and dramas have reflected and influenced Americans’ views of race, gender, family and politics.

Producers take pains to emphasize that though the series will feature clips from many shows, it will amount to more than the typical “best-of” TV retrospective. The History of Television will take a “smart look at the real meaning of television in our lives,” says Dalton Delan, chief programming officer at WETA in Washington, D.C.

The producers are starting with four one-hour episodes, but with a focus narrow enough to allow for many more programs if the series returns in future seasons. Each of the four will take up a character archetype that’s been reworked throughout the medium’s history, drawing on new and archived interviews with actors, producers and network execs, plus clips from TV’s most iconic shows, from Gunsmoke to The Sopranos.

The series’ producer is The Documentary Group, a production house founded by former colleagues of Peter Jennings, the late ABC News anchor. The group worked with WETA on Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, an artful interpretation of soldiers’ combat travails that aired in April as part of PBS’s America at a Crossroads series. Richard Robbins, director of Homecoming, will lead the TV history project.

Tom Yellin, co-founder and e.p. of The Documentary Group, has loved television since childhood, he says, and dislikes the elitist tendency to dismiss a medium he sees as an art form.

“One way to examine an art form is to look at the greatest work,” he says. The History of Television, he says, presents that opportunity.Each episode will explore a theme and use certain shows as examples:

“It will not be some kind of a wallpaper show of clips,” Delan says. “We’re taking a very definitive line of choosing major characters and showing them as they move through American history.”

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation has also signed on as a key partner in shepherding the series to the air. It is helping to raise corporate funding and has given the producers access to its Archive of American Television, which includes more than 500 interviews with actors, writers, producers and executives.

Excerpts from the archive will augment new interviews with key figures who are still around to share their experiences. Bill Cosby and James Arness are two celebs high on Yellin’s wish list.

ATAS has also helped to ease negotiations with networks and studios for clips, even securing rights to put clips on a companion DVD and in video streaming on the series’ expansive website.

“I’ve done clip shows going back decades,” Delan says, “and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“The commercial networks can’t do it because the rights issues are too confounding,” Yellin says. “Public television is the perfect venue. It’s sort of the Switzerland of television.”

The $6 million project is backed in part by the CPB/PBS Program Challenge Fund, which kicked in $2 million. Corporate support is still coming together, but producers already envision extending the series past the initial four hours. “All of us who are interested view this as a franchise with a long, long life,” says Yellin.

Additional installments might focus on advertising and on programs outside of primetime. The spotlight could eventually shine on public TV, “but I think it’s probably a good thing that that’s not where we start,” says Delan, who wanted to avoid generating an aura of self-promotion around the series.

Likewise, Yellin has little interest in focusing on the history of broadcast news—his field of three decades—but for different reasons. News “sort of speaks for itself,” he says. “I’m not sure examining it will yield new insights that will surprise people.”                        

Web page posted Dec. 6, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee


See Pipeline for more new series and specials in preparation for public TV in future season.


Two decades earlier, in 1988, PBS covered TV history with the WNET-KCET series Television, by longtime pubTV producers Jack Sameth and Michael Winship, based in part on a series from Britain's Granada Television, according to a review in the New York Times. Time magazine didn't much like the series.

Variety covers the series announcement, August 2007.

The Documentary Group, series producer, with offices in New York and Los Angeles.

Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and its online video Archive of American Television, interviews with notable TV creators and stars.

American Experience retold the epic story of competition for parenthood of TV between RCA's David Sarnoff and lone inventor Philo Farnsworth. Aaron Sorkin adopted the battle for his 2007 Broadway play The Farnsworth Invention, as NPR reported.

Selections from the newspaper about
public TV and radio in the United States