Print Project Proposal: Historians React to Period Shows

Have you ever wondered how historically accurate a period show is on TV? How does the historical accuracy or inaccuracy affect audience’s perceptions of the past? As a person who loves history and history TV shows, I am curious about these questions as well. I remember talking to one of my favorite undergraduate professors and colleagues at the Omohundro Institute about our feelings on period shows. In this project proposal, I will endeavor to uncover what historians think about these popular period shows: Bridgerton (Netflix), Turn: Washington’s Spies (AMC), Little House on the Prairie (NBC), Downton Abbey (PBS Masterpiece), and Deanwood (HBO). Their thoughts on historical accuracy can pertain to any of the following: set design, clothing, historic words and phrases, shooting location, and accuracy of events and their impacts in the show, such as the American Revolution’s effects on families across what would become the United States.

In regards to the TV shows I chose, I want to analyze shows that are set in different time periods. In this way, multiple historians with different specialties can have their reactions analyzed. I also wanted to choose TV shows from multiple different networks and streaming services instead of just one to observe if there is any variation present in how these shows display the historical time period they are set in. For instance, is there a difference between how AMC and HBO show history, such as which network has more historically accurate content? Additionally, I wanted to choose popular TV period shows from different decades that they were aired in to observe if the era they aired had an effect on how they displayed history. For instance, how did producing Little House on the Prairie in the 1970s impact how that show displayed 1870s America to audiences? What would be different if it was aired today?

In order to analyze what historians have been and are discussing about these popular shows, I will send out a survey to historians I know who are interested and/or have their specialty in that time period, as well as historians who have researched period TV shows. For instance, I will send the survey to one of my professors at William & Mary who was in an episode ofTurn and has a strong research interest in clothing, dancing, and Regency Era Britain. I can also send the survey to my former colleagues at the Omohundro Institute, especially for Turn as it takes place in Colonial America. After sending out those surveys, I will also ask if they know any other historians who have strong feelings about these TV shows and/or are specialists in that particular time period and place. In this way, I could analyze their various reactions to these popular TV shows and what they are correctly and incorrectly conveying to audiences.

Additionally, I would also utilize Twitter. During my time at the Omohundro Institute, I learned from historians who worked there that Twitter is a great place for historians. It is a place where historians share their work, share their research and sources, and share their thoughts on current events, including TV shows. For example, I could search for the Twitter accounts of prominent historians in that particular field and view their posts if they discussed one of the period TV shows I want to analyze. I can also follow different hashtags to view the conversation, such as the hashtags of the show’s name and others, such as #HistoryFail, #HistoryTVShow, and others. While this would be more time consuming and includes the reactions of non-historians, this method would be another avenue to collect data on how historians are reacting to these popular shows.

I can also analyze history blogs. For example, Commonplace – the blog run by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture – published a piece in July 2015 pertaining to a William & Mary Education/Film & Media Studies professor’s reaction to the accuracy of Turn. Additionally, the panel who edited and published the article had historians on it. Blogs written and moderated by historians personally and from academic presses would be another avenue of analyzing historian’s reactions to the period TV shows I have chosen to study.

In an increasingly digital world, it is important to analyze how history is being portrayed to audiences. People learn about history and historic topics from places outside of the classroom, such as TV. Therefore, it is important to analyze those TV shows as to how they are portraying the past to audiences around the world. If those TV shows are not producing an accurate depiction of history, what does that say about the contemporary society’s feelings towards that time period? How will it affect people’s thoughts and sense of the past?

-Meredith Jackson

3 Replies to “Print Project Proposal: Historians React to Period Shows”

  1. I think this is a really cool idea! I’m definitely a person who watches every historical show with wikipedia open, so I’d be interested to see what you find. I do think there is also an argument to be made that historical accuracy doesn’t matter in art. I wonder if looking at critics with different backgrounds will change your results.

  2. This sounds like a great idea for your digital history project! I am also interested in historical tv shows so this is right up my alley. It would also be interesting to do some research into the development and production of the shows to see if they made specific decisions as related to your questions. They probably even consulted with historians about the time period and how their show could fit into it. The plots of the show are also important to analyze as they show what the creators of the show wanted to focus on. That specific story can also obscure other parts of history going on at that time. Overall, I believe this to be a compelling proposal as periodical history shows become more prevalent. It is important to understand the decisions they made in production but also how uninformed people and informed historians react to them.

  3. Meredith, this is a really interesting concept! As the content of TV shows has developed in myriad ways from a few main broadcast channels, to a wide range of cable and satellite stations, to an array of streaming services and platforms. So there is a lot to work with there!

    My biggest suggestion/question on this project idea is about scope. If you do pick a set of shows that represent very different periods and contexts, I think you are going to run into some challenges in getting the right kinds of historians to be able to deeply respond to them. To that end, I would suggest looking for some more focused area, which could be something like “representations of the American frontier” or “representations of the history of slavery in American history” or something like that. If you have a common thematic link, then you could get historians that have more expertise in that area and you would end up being able to draw out some more nuanced comparisons.

    The idea of looking at discussions of the shows on twitter and blogs is a great idea. Another source you could consider is IMDB and reddit. Again, in terms of scope, if you were to run with this as your project, I would suggest either doing the survey or doing analysis of discussions of the shows on the web. I think trying to do both of them in one paper would end up being a bit disjointed and also be too much work to try and do in one semester.

    For my two cents, I think if you 1) picked a set of shows that deal with a common historical topic and then 2) just went and looked at discussions of those shows online and did analysis of those shows that you could end up with both a manageable and really interesting project.

    Thanks for your work on this and I’m excited to see how this idea develops if you choose to run with it!

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