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Blogging from the World Congress of History Producers

I repent. I have been too wedded to print, to text.

“It’s about content, stupid,” says the sign above my desk at home. Now, after spending less than 24 hours with history filmmakers, I have been shaken awake: content isn’t only in print, or on a website. Television documentaries are content, too, rich and inspiring and moving. And they reach audiences in the millions.

Maybe this isn’t repentance, but a kind of road to Damascus experience, of my eyes being opened. The last session today ( was a showing of dozens of clips from films submitted for a “best of the best” review by Alliance Atlantis in Canada. There was terrorism, a psychological comparison of Stalin and Hitler (an idle dreamer), the “Naked Anthropologist,” and reenactments of scenes from the Battle of Trafalgar. All events or topics we’ve covered in print, and that I’ve never seen on screen. That is, I have never seem them because I almost never watch television. (How appropriate, in Rome, a confession.)

This is a business in which ratings and demographics are counted and analyzed and made use of, something we ought to be doing in the publishing sector. Men watch more history programs, for example, while women watch biography and programs about unsolved crimes (whodunits). And it’s not all bad news for publishers. Programmers worry about how to reach younger audiences, just as we do, and documentary makes are nearly as an inept, or lacking in creativity, as we are about this. They think kids will grow into old-style archival/talking head documentaries when they hit 35, or that everything should be docudrama or a version of reality TV.

There are a number of hot debates, over accuracy vs. truth and whether predicted events based on peer-reviewed scientific research are science or science fiction (there was quite a battle over a program called “Supervolcano”). And a number of people warned me away from documentary making because it’s so hard to raise the money to do quality shows. “I’m in reference publishing,” I said, “that would hardly be a new experience.”

This is the friendliest conference I’ve ever been to, and I feel guilty about skipping tonight’s social event to catch up on work—tomorrow night, though, is to Cerveteri and the Etruscan Museum. I’m determined not to miss that, so I’m working this evening.

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