History Detectives promoted to investigators in series revamp

By Dru Sefton

History Detectives, the PBS series featuring amiable sleuths who truth-squadded stories behind historical items and artifacts, will instead take on bigger cases in a revamped and retitled series to debut next summer. History Detectives: Special Investigation will also be known as HDSI, in TV crime drama parlance.

PBS recently ordered four episodes of the reworked show, a reduction from the nine to 11 that aired during summer seasons going back to 2003.

History Detectives researcher Wes Cowan, left, returns in 2014 with new host Kaiama Glover, an associate professor of French. Producers invited her to audition after discovering a YouTube video of her lecturing. (Photo: OPB)

History Detectives researcher Wes Cowan, left, returns in 2014 with new host Kaiama Glover, an associate professor of French. Producers invited her to audition after discovering a YouTube video of her lecturing. (Photo: OPB)

PBS’s chief programmer Beth Hoppe sees the limited run, scheduled for next summer, as a trial for the new approach. “If it resonates with audiences, and is as excellent as we are expecting, we hope to order more” for 2015, she said. The program is on broadcast hiatus this year.

HDSI will introduce a new host, a pared-down team of detectives and a streamlined format of gripping mysteries from the past. Instead of researching the authenticity of several historical artifacts within each program, the team will dig into one cold case from American history per episode, such as the disappearance of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa in 1975.

“Everyone may think they know about Jimmy Hoffa but — I promise you — they don’t,” said series co-executive producer Chris Bryson of Lion TV in New York City.

The original History Detectives format was unique when the series debuted a decade ago, said David Davis, co-executive producer and v.p. of television at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Its team of detectives revealed stories behind an assortment of keepsake items, such as a commemorative brooch supposedly created from a piece of the Liberty Bell, a Colonial-era $6 bill and a guitar that was said to have belonged to Bob Dylan.

The show even made international news last June with one artifact that its detectives investigated and found to be authentic: a diary that had been taken from the body of a North Vietnamese soldier killed in 1966. Producers turned the diary over to U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who presented it to Vietnam’s defense minister in Hanoi.

But now, at least 14 television series on multiple networks are investigating or valuing found objects, and “one program is almost a direct clone,” Davis said. That would be CNBC’s first reality series, Treasure Detectives, which premiered in March.

The replication of its format has cut into the audience for History Detectives, and inconsistent scheduling has added to its ratings challenges. “It used to run on Mondays after Antiques Roadshow, which was a good lead-in,” Davis said. But in 2011 PBS moved the show to 8 p.m. Tuesdays, where in many markets its lead-in was PBS NewsHour; its average Nielsen ratings fell 30 percent, from a 1.3 to 0.9. (At the time, PBS national primetime ratings averaged 1.4). Then last summer the detectives competed for viewers with the Summer Olympics from London, and the GOP and Democratic presidential conventions displaced it from the schedule. Its average rating sank further, to 0.8.

“We just felt the ratings were less than we’d hoped for, whatever the reason,” Davis said. “The theory, in part, was it wasn’t unique anymore. We wanted to reinvent it with a new format.”

PBS programmers “loved the personalities” on the show, Hoppe said, but minute-by-minute Nielsen ratings showed that viewers tuned out if they weren’t interested in an object. “So we came up with the idea for researching one big, iconic story through a multifaceted approach, uncovering new evidence and telling stories people haven’t heard before,” she said.

Lion, OPB and PBS “kicked around a number of ideas” for subjects, Davis said. The team began with a list of “a dozen or so,” and ended up with four: In addition to Hoffa, the new show will investigate the disappearance of big band leader Glenn Miller on a flight during World War II; the sinking of the SS Sultana at the end of the Civil War, which claimed more victims than the Titanic; and the unsolved murders of a string of servant girls in Austin, Texas, in the 1880s, victims of America’s first serial killer.

To avoid alienating longtime fans of History Detectives, producers worked to retain some familiar elements. “There’s a loyal viewership, so we want to bring those viewers with us to this new show,” Bryson said. The pacing and feel of the show will remain the same, as will the theme music, Elvis Costello’s first big hit, “Watching the Detectives.”

Although the number of detectives has shrunk, two veterans are returning:  Wes Cowan, the owner of an auction company who holds a doctorate in anthropology; and Tukufu Zuberi, a history documentarian and professor of race relations at the University of Pennsylvania.

The new host, Kaiama (pronounced ki-YA-ma) Glover, is an associate professor of French at Barnard College, Columbia University, where she teaches literature of the French-speaking Caribbean as well as sub-Saharan West African cinema.

Glover came to Bryson’s attention through a YouTube video of one of her lectures. In the clip, “she was energetic and fun,” he said, “and you could tell students were watching her intently. She looked like she might be good on television.” During auditions with some half-dozen candidates, producers were “really impressed by her ability to take direction and treat the camera as a friend,” Bryson said.

While the detectives and their producers investigate their next batch of mysterious stories from history, stations can continue to run the original History Detectives. The rights to the first 10 seasons have been cleared for 10 years, Davis said.

Questions, comments, tips? sefton@current.org
This article was first published in Current, July 8, 2013.
  • Connie Moreno

    They should have left the original show just as it was and maybe added a few special episodes in the new format. I can tell you right now that out of the 4 new episodes, I’m only watching one.

  • B Fay Wiese

    Here was the appeal of the original format for me: it took 1.) fairly ordinary people, who had 2.) collected or inherited a 3.) possibly significant item (on an individual or community scale) and showed the audience how to investigate, research, and authenticate such items. Of course you had access to a wider net of of resources, but the show helped people understand that it was definitely possible to investigate items, events, and people other than museum pieces and that SUCH DOCUMENTATION WAS WORTHWHILE. I don’t see this new show as doing any of that. Frankly, I’m tired of everything being “epic.” And your statement, “We just felt the ratings were less than we’d hoped for, whatever the reason,” in light of the Olympics and Presidential elections, is woefully disingenuous and smacks of scapegoating. Thank goodness the old series is in reruns. Will I watch the new series? Sounds too much like the History Channel to me.

  • lkaw56

    I like it the way it is currently and with the current five detectives. They just added Eduardo and now are dumping him and Gwen and Elise(or whatever her name is). I May not watch anymore. It was my bit of education watching them

  • OB2

    Oh well. Another great idea ruined. My family used to tune in for every episode. We will now turn out. Since this is the last PBS show we watched, we no longer can justify further contributions to PBS.

  • johnmelvin

    I wonder if PBS officials take note of our comments? I also was looking and wondering why there weren’t new episodes. I watch online being out of the country and can’t access PBS. Why O why do these folks ruin a good thing? The ratings were down! Well Duh………..change the date, the times, give the program inconsistent scheduling and you blame the show??? Really! This new format I predict will be a downer. The very comment that ‘if one object on the show was not enjoyed the change the channel.’ Well, what do you think will happen if this one topic for the whole program is not enjoyed by the viewer. At least with the other show there was a variety.

  • John Buglione

    I’ve waited for the return of “History Detectives”. I wondered what was happening! Leave the “investigating to “CSI Miami” and such shows! Give me my history, and real people.

  • Jim Young

    Jimmy Hoffa again? I’ll be sure NOT to watch that one. Always have to ruin a good thing. Change days and times ratings will drop, put it where it belongs and leave it alone. The appeal was ordinary people with objects to find the HISTORY of, things we haven’t read or heard about for years and have grown sick of.

  • CarmenXVI

    I enjoyed the show when it first came on. In the early seasons, they had stories about unusual artifacts and instances in peoples lives which were fun to follow up on.
    For example, events surrounding Grant staying at an out of the way hotel, or Jim Thorpe having an almost unknown career as a basketball barnstormer.

    Unfortunately, as time went on, more and more stories got thick and heavy on historical injustices and social relevance. The show was no longer fun.

    This was especially true of the segments concerning Gwendolyn Wright. She simply could not get through 3 minutes (or so it seemed) without preaching to us and waiving a finger about social injustice during every story and especially in the wrap ups.

    I have no doubt that she would have much preferred to have been born in the 1850′s and led temperance and sufferage movements along with Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Nation.
    While sympathetic to those causes, I saw no need to have them slammed in my face in every story.
    That’s why I (and others I know) gave up on the show. It wasn’t the scheduling.

  • annabel dee

    Just watched the episode on the Sultana shipwreck. Very interesting piece of history and the connection to Lincoln was extremely disturbing and worth thinking about. It’s too bad that the producers felt it necessary to tart the whole thing up. The new gimmicks have turned me off completely and I’m not going to watch History Detectives anymore. The hyperactive music, the fake drama dialogue btwn Kaiama and Wes — as if we were watching some banal CSI episode and presumably fascinated by her casual but tough as nails delivery –that ridiculously stupid use of thumb tacks and red thread to illustrate interconnections btwn various historical figures, the nauseating camera work (the camera panning up to Wes plus the quick shots cutting btwn each location) — all of this was embarrassing, derivative, clearly pandering. Maybe you’ll get new viewers w/these gimmicks but along the way, you’ve lost an avid fan. I disliked the elimination of any contact with people who work in libraries and archives and helped the show’s hosts narrow their searches. Their conversations were always interesting–much more than the fake scripts the hosts are now memorizing and delivering in stilted ways when speaking to each other. I also find it appalling that the producers decided to let go of two very interesting female hosts and replace them with a pretty young woman who is not even a historian. She seems like a fine person, but the show did not need someone new to “bring energy.” This show worked because it found the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary. The history itself, the connections that people made to objects and then to historical narratives, the introductions btwn the person launching the query and descendants of the historical artifact — all of that was very moving to witness. All of the stories that were recovered just because someone had a strange fascination with some artifact–bringing that to our attention was rewarding, really brilliant. I’m sorry to part ways with this show but — ugh. In a word, just …. ugh.

    • cath

      I totally agree with you annabel dee, & zaxar, out with the “new” in back in with the “old”

    • jdgriswald

      Can’t agree with you more. This format now smacks of current History Channel and H2 tripe, complete with the trumped up suggestions of conspiracy in each episode.

  • zaxzar

    All I can say is Ugh! I hate the new format. It seems fake and contains nothing of interest of the former stories that History Detectives used to show. You lost another viewer here too. Bring back the old format with the FORMER detectives Elise & Gwen.

  • bobbyjoe

    The format couldn’t have been the problem– look at something like “Mysteries at the Museum” which runs on “The Travel Channel” and is essentially a lower, less smart version of “History Detectives” multi-story format. That show must get at least decent ratings, as the Travel Channel has continued to air it more than almost any other show on their network. I know PBS claims it’s the advent of these other shows that cut into their ratings, but I think they just demonstrate how interested people are in these kinds of shows. You can’t move “History Detectives” to a much tougher time slot, schedule it so it airs much more sporadically, and then claim that it’s some other factor that’s tanking it’s ratings– it’s clearly a self-inflicted wound. My bet as to what’s really going on: it’s cheaper to pay three “detectives” rather than six, and focusing on one story cuts down on travel and location expense to multiple destinations. In other words, it’s cash over content. The irony, of course, is that if PBS keeps making moves like these that alienate their viewers (along with moves like prominently touting a climate change-denying Koch brother as one of the key sponsors of PBS’ main science show, NOVA), then contribution money from viewers is going to decrease, more and more.

  • Barb

    I thought the original format and cast were wonderful. While some of the investigations were a bit short in terms of depth, they always followed sound research and the use of knowledgeable experts. Certainly gave us a lot of practical ways to initiate our own research. I do think some events are appropriate for a full length show. The historical content of Sultana was fascinating. Kept wondering what this strange woman had to do with it. And why were they chatting away about something that had nothing to do with research? Missed the trip to archives, libraries. National Archives and its staff did not get their due, etc. Interest is lower because most viewers want a ten minute resolution. Also very hard to find out when or if HD will be on my local station.
    P.S. I rarely watch NOVA anymore even tho’ I am a rabid science fan. Just can’t stomach Koch’s or their money.

    • zaxzar

      I just can’t get into the new format or the annoying way the “investigators” have their fake phone call conversations. I completely lost interest by the end of last night’s show and stopped watching. I want the invesitgations with the public’s artifacts and interaction with the public with all the investigators back.

  • Virginia Gilbert

    If a show’s format is being imitated by other shows, that should tell PBS something about the quality of the show. I greatly liked the old format and all the old hosts, and PBS should bring it back. The current version is okay, but not great. Your new host seems superficial, and the exchanges between all of them lack the depth of previous years’ programs. A few of these special episodes are fine, but new episodes where researching pieces from private collections are still interesting. The new approach cuts out contact with the public, while the old show involved the public. One is where you decide what we will watch, while the other interacts with the audience who have objects they would like to see researched. The old version of the show sheds light on little known American history; the new show tries to shed light on better known stories. Both versions are useful, but if I have to choose, I choose the old version of the show with the old hosts. There are not many good programs on during the summer; this is one of them. The problem with the show is your changing the time from after Antiques Roadshow to Tuesday night. These time changes (as well as fund raising events that interrupt regular broadcasts) confuse your audience. You should have left well enough alone. Bring back the old version, put it on after Antiques Roadshow, and intersperse a few of these special investigations throughout the season. That’s a reasonable compromise.

  • Linda Haas

    Personally, I loved “History Detectives” and am thrilled it will continue with the new “History Detectives-Special Investigations.” I didn’t appreciate my History classes when I was in school but this format makes it fun! I regret it’s been reduced to to only 4 episodes this year. Please, PBS, don’t drop this series. You are an education based station and we need more brain stimulating programs on the air. P.S. I have an idea for a dynamite story for you to do an am waiting for you to open your “request line”.

  • Cathy Fast

    You have lost me as a viewer of History Detectives. What was interesting and unique about the series was the connection between an artifact of an ordinary person and the discovery of its connection to an historical event. Much like Antiques Roadshow has made us wonder if any of our inherited or yard sale treasures are valuable, History Dectectives made us look at possible historical significance of our treasures. Sadly, HDSI is simply a re-hash of old mysteries and lacks the personal link that made the previous version so interesting.

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