Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A story of determination and 'America: The Story of Us'

About seven weeks ago the History Channel started running a 12-hour series chronicling the history of the country called America: The Story of Us. It seemed like it might be interesting, so I recorded the episodes on the DVR but didn't get around to starting to watch until a couple weeks ago.

I'm still only part way through viewing them. I'll explain.

As the subtitle suggests, it is intended as a story of the U.S. for the U.S. and by the U.S. There's a lot of computer-generated graphics and live-action re-creation with actors (with voice-over narration by Liev Schrieber, who has done narration for a number of such productions), with bits of interviews interspersed. Those interviewed include professors and authors and journalists who presumably have expertise with history as well as celebrities who appear to have paid attention in their high school U.S. history classes.

Clearly the inclusion of the celebrities is trying to appeal to an audience who ordinarily would not sit through 12 hours of a documentary, and in this era of celebrity obsession it's an understandable ploy; it's obviously not an inexpensive production, so they need to get good ratings to justify that. (And it appears the premiere episode got the highest ratings for any show the channel has ever had.) It is very intentionally populist in its tone, and having Sheryl Crow comment on the achievements of Clara Barton rather than a less-famous academic might make it more palatable to a mainstream viewership.

Although they don't gloss over the dark episodes in the nation's history, the overall tone is very much a pep rally for America. However, "the story of us" certainly suggests such a tone before one even starts watching. Besides, populist works tend to be optimistic in their approach to subjects; it's unlikely that a wide audience will sit through 12 hours of a depressing, look-how-awful-we-were diatribe.

I was willing to put up with the interspersed interview footage featuring Donald Trump that the producers included; as annoying as he is, he does technically meet the modern definition of a "celebrity." His scenes were generally less than 30 seconds, so it wasn't too arduous a trial to sit through--although it was far more arduous than I expected viewing the series would be before I started watching.

One would think "The Trump" bits would be the worst part, and if I could get through that the rest should be a breeze.

The point that almost pushed it too far for me was when, during the episode about the Civil War, I heard this voice-over after it came back from commercial:
In a building just across the road from the White House is a small room. It will become Lincoln's nerve center for this war. And at its heart, a simple device that will transform how this war is fought, and won: the telegraph.

The invention of Morse Code in 1844 turns the telegraph into America's first tool of mass communication.
So far so good. Then it continued:
Quickly encoded, the basic system of dots and dashes is ideal for brief messaging.
Still okay. Then... this:
Like Twitter today, it needs just seconds to send them and transcribe them.

Yes, that's right. When discussing the power of the telegraph that facilitated unprecedented communication between Washington, D.C. and the battle fields that dramatically changed the course of the bloodiest war in our history, the narration compared that to the social media where celebrities like Ashton Kutcher can share virtually every thought he has with over 5 million followers.

Well, telegraphs and tweets are both brief. That much is true.

I suppose the inference to be drawn is the producers figured the younger generation (who might be forced to watch this in a high school class) might not have a grasp of electronic signals traveling along wires (despite that same method being how much of the country still gets electricity) and need some analogy to get the point across.

Okay, not even the most cynical TV producer must think teenagers are that stupid. It's a ploy to get the teen to look up from texting by name-dropping their current obsession. "Huh, what'd the narrator say about 'Twitter'?"

The choice to specify that term conceivably will backfire in, say, five years when presumably teens will have decreed that Twitter is passé and are long since into some other mode of communication. (Look at the old guy who doesn't "tweet" assuming that teens haven't already abandoned it as uncool.) At that point the teens subjected to the series in a history class would find the reference to be dated; rather than grab attention it seems more apt to be off-putting.

I'm not saying the content of the rest of the series wouldn't already seem boring and dated to the hypothetical average teen, but the rest isn't such an obvious and flawed bit of patronization toward them.

Of course, it could be worse. The producers could have worked in some allusion to MySpace.

I have continued watching past that episode, but in part it's to see they can top the Twitter reference as reason for me to regret putting up with Trump.

Americans: We don't give up.


To be fair, those adults who are still bothering to tweet in five years (I imagine there'll be those who continue to believe their 140-character bon mots need to shared) who see the series when it's repeated on the History Channel (let's not pretend the channel won't still be milking their investment for years to come) will find the mention of their favorite text-based communiques to be mildly thrilling.

They'll use it as validation to their friends who question why they still tweet; that some copywriter came up with it and a narrator said it and a editor left it in will justify that they haven't given up on it.

Undoubtedly those at the Library of Congress will have come to their senses about tweets by then, so the Twitter diehards will need something to latch on to in their arguments.


If one senses an anti-Twitter bias in the above that's only because one has pulled oneself away from one's Blackberry or iPhone long enough to pay attention. And well beyond 140 characters. Bravo.

1 comment:

  1. The telegraph changed history in ways that Twitter could never even imagine. Holy crap. I want to write hate mail to THC for sullying the mighty achievement of the telegraph by comparing it with the mundane buffoonery of Twitter. Ugh.


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