Community history docs satisfy yearning: to know where we came from Puerto Rican dancers perform in a parade in WLIW's latest heritage program for PBS.
Originally published in Current, March 8, 1999
By Geneva Collins
Local public TV producers are realizing Fred Rogers' genius years ago in putting "neighborhood" in his show's title: What better way to create a sense of connectedness among viewers, stir civic pride, preserve a slice of local history--and maybe even make the phones jingle at pledge time--than by doing documentaries on local neighborhoods and area ethnic groups?
Local documentaries are as old as public television, but one difference today is that many producers are daring to stray from the formula of the soft-focus "shared memories" shows prototyped by Pittsburgh's WQED in the late '80s that have been such successful pledge vehicles. They're discovering that even harder-edged documentaries can draw in dollars, so starved are viewers for local content.
The experience of Bill Fredette, associate g.m. for television broadcasting at WGTE in Toledo, Ohio, is typical of many:
"We started out by doing one of those 'things that aren't here anymore' documentaries" done by countless stations as pledge specials, he said. "It was a good fundraiser, but more importantly, it created a tremendous amount of buzz in the community."
So, after a few more nostalgia programs, "we decided to do something on things that are carried into the future. ... [The idea] sort of mutated from a nostalgia documentary to these more historically heavy ethnic pieces," said Fredette.
The result is Cornerstones, an occasional series that has, to date, covered the history of the Irish, German, Polish and African-American communities in Toledo. (Three more are planned.) The documentaries are closer in spirit to The American Experience than to WQED's amusement-park memoir, "Kennywood Memories." But "to our surprise, they have been very effective fundraisers as well," said Fredette. The four shows, all of which debuted at pledge time, raised a total of $70,000 during their initial airings.
"Fiscally, it's been a very wise move, but that wasn't our original intent. We told the producer when we first started the shows, 'If it doesn't make $50 during pledge, that's OK,'" Fredette said.
San Francisco's KQED made the same discovery on a grander scale when it launched its Neighborhoods: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco series in 1994. As series executive producer Peter Stein explained, the segments were always meant to be comprehensive historical documentaries, minus the "nostalgic glow." However, each of the three episodes premiered during pledge--not so much because they were designed to open wallets but because pledge time means high visibility, and these were pricey, time-consuming projects. (Hard dollar costs ranged from $260,000 to $310,000, said Stein.)
"The Castro" raised $173,000 in five airings and "Chinatown" raised $94,000 in three airings, according to Scott Dwyer, KQED's program scheduling manager. He didn't have figures for the first show, "The Mission." "The Castro" and "Chinatown" went on to air nationally on PBS.
Asked to explain the appeal of these shows, Stein said, "I think that we're living in a rootless age. I think the way we communicate, the way we work, the way we uproot ourselves from our families and social structures that have defined our nation have led us to yearn, unconsciously or not, to know about where we came from."
Down the California coast, KPBS staffers began work on their Searching for San Diego series by watching both nostalgia programs and KQED's Hidden Cities to learn from both genres, said Natalie Walsh, director of program production.
The resulting profiles of San Diego's Little Italy and San Ysidro "don't have a folksy feel to them. A lot of people here have moved here from somewhere else. We'd alienate a lot of people if we had taken the 'Don't you remember when?' approach," said KPBS publicist Tamara Charnow. Nonetheless, "Little Italy" raised $2,000 when it aired as a repeat during a 1996 pledge drive, garnering 17 pledges in five minutes, "which is considered very good," said Walsh.
Three documentaries done by WMVS in Milwaukee have a similar feel, although the audience is very different, said their producer, Dan Jones. Unlike most big cities, "Milwaukee is not a community of transients. Most people have lived here all their lives." His shows, which have never aired during pledge, discuss the past but concentrate on what the neighborhood is like today.
"I believe we should care the most about our own backyards," said Jones, himself a Milwaukee native.
Not knocking nostalgia
All this is not to imply that nostalgia programs are, excuse the expression, history. Many stations are doing quite well by them, thank you. Georgia Public Broadcasting and Kentucky ETV, for example, each peddle an extensive collection of videotapes on local history and landmarks. In Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, WVPT has been sating viewers' appetites with city profiles that outdraw national pledge specials. The latest is "Streetcars & Cobblestones: Staunton Looks Back."
"When you say 'history,' a lot of people are intimidated by it. It has a boring connotation," said producer Tracey Jewell. Using personal reminiscences helps humanize and enliven historical events, she feels.
Although some have criticized nostalgia programming for ignoring serious issues, Jewell said, "I told people I wasn't going to sidestep the issue of segregation" in her documentary on Charlottesville. "People weren't offended" by the finished product, she said.
For Dayton's WPTD, Production Manager Roland Flynn produced and wrote documentaries in 1995 and '96 on Appalachians and African-Americans living in the community. These gritty documentaries addressed touchy issues like alcoholism, unemployment, and redlining. But the last few programs he's done have been lighter-hearted pledge specials like a remembrance of a long-gone department store.
Flynn says he loves doing the pledge specials and is not concerned they may gloss over the darker side of things. "I think most viewers realize what we're doing with these programs."
Even WQED, reigning champion of what some call the "scrapbook memory" genre, has evolved the format somewhat. The station now has some 20 programs in its Pittsburgh History series, most of them produced, written and narrated by the ebullient Rick Sebak.
Having produced the shows for more than a decade, Sebak has honed a distinctive authorial voice and his documentaries have become "more multilayered and complex," said Carolyn Wean, WQED's executive director of media, production, and distribution. In his 1997 "North Side" show, for example, Sebak was not afraid to show how urbanization caused wholesale desecration of the Pittsburgh neighborhood and dislocated a large number of people, said Wean. Yet the overall tone was upbeat.
"Most of the time, memories are good ones. If he were to go looking for the negative he wouldn't do justice to people's memories," said Deborah Acklin, WQED executive producer of local programming.
WQED was the nation's first community-licensed public TV station to go on the air, Wean noted, and chronicling developments in the city helps fulfill its mission. The documentaries also involve the community in that people send Sebak family albums, home movies, and other memorabilia whenever the station announces an upcoming topic.
KQED's Peter Stein, who has witnessed the same phenomenon in making his San Francisco documentaries, said, "We could not produce these shows without the assistance of our viewers, who come forward with absolutely priceless film material and photographs."
"So much of this is hidden history," seconded producer Rachel Torgoff at WKAR in East Lansing, Mich. She said she was moved to produce "Making an American Community: Immigration and Migration to Lansing, Michigan" in part because she heard that African-Americans in the community felt the station's "things that aren't here anymore" documentaries didn't represent their memories. "They might have worked at a particular nightclub or restaurant [featured in a show], but they were'nt allowed to eat there."
"Making an American Community," which aired in December, is intended as a pilot for three specials that will address the Mexican-American, Hispanic, and African-American experiences in the area.
Preserving heritage before it's gone
WLIW, New York City/Long Island, has tried to bring the hidden history of the nation's immigrants front and center with its series of nationally distributed pledge programs it calls "heritage specials." Its 1997 effort, "A Laugh, a Tear, a Mitzvah," exploring what it means to be Jewish in America, struck such a chord among viewers that WLIW quickly whipped up specials on Irish, Italian, Polish and Greek immigrants. The latest, on Puerto Ricans, is premiering on stations this month; Chinese-Americans and Mexican-Americans are next.
Noting that the station was criticized for doing a piece on Jews without mentioning the Holocaust and one on Italians without mentioning the Mafia, General Manager Terrel Cass said, "Most Italians have never had any contact with the Mafia, and there are 10,000 other shows out there about the Mafia. These are warm, feel-good programs that celebrate the ethnic culture of these groups. ... It's important to preserve some of this heritage. It's going to disappear if something isn't done."
Folks at Prairie PTV in North Dakota have been bowled over by viewer response to their ambitious documentary about an ethnic group whose complicated past came close to being obliterated in melting pot America. "Germans from Russia," chronicling the account of Germans who migrated to parts of Russia and the Ukraine, and whose descendants traveled to North America's prairies a century later, contains lavish footage of the ancestral villages in Europe as well as archival photographs and readings from diaries.
The station sold 1,500 copies of the videotape before the show even aired in February, more than five times what had been expected, said Bob Dambach, Prairie's director of programming and production.
The program, like many of these local documentaries, has a curriculum guide for use in schools.
"We take very seriously our obligation to produce programs for both a general audience and educational applications," said Prairie PTV President Kathleen Pavelko, who like many executives touted her station's role as the region's historian and storyteller.
Although stations like WQED have seen their local productions aired outside their markets, KQED appears unique in conceiving of its shows as at once both local and national stories. Stein said he stumbled upon that idea while making the second installment of the Hidden Cities series. He realized his segment on San Francisco's Chinatown was more than a piece about a neighborhood, "it was the story of the Chinese in America; it had resonance for a national audience."
Similarly, his show on the Castro became a story about the gay rights movement in America; an upcoming segment on the Fillmore district will explore urban renewal in America.
National or local, nostalgic or not, these documentaries are helping Americans feel connected, Stein thinks.
"Viewers are clamoring for local programs beyond the commercial stations' local news," said Dayton's Flynn. I think public television can fill a wonderful niche in providing something other than newscasts, and the public is responding."
To Current's home page
Earlier news: Nostalgic happy-history documentaries sweep the country, 1994.
Current Briefing about history on public television.
Outside link: WGTE's web page about its Cornerstones series on Toledo history.
Outside link: WQED's web page about its Pittsburgh History videocassettes.
Outside link: KQED's web pages about its Neighborhoods: Hidden Cities of San Francisco series.
Outside link: KPBS's web page about its Searching for San Diego: "Little Italy" documentary.
Outside link: Prairie PTV's web page about its "Germans from Russia" documentary.
Web page created March 6, 1999
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