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February 06, 2020

Walking and Talking History

For its 25th Anniversary, HISTORY comes off the screen in two new projects.

Melissa Byers
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin

    A+E Networks
  • Lance Still

    A+E Networks
  • HISTORY

History is a living thing.

Every moment contributes to history, some moments more than others. HISTORY (formerly the History Channel) knows this, and, for its 25th anniversary, has decided to bring history off the screen and into the real world with two new series of events: HISTORYTalks, debuting February 29 in New York City, and HISTORYCon, April 3-5 in Pasadena, California.

Lance Still, Senior Vice President of Consumer Enterprises for A+E Networks, the parent company for HISTORY, explains the genesis of the idea, "I can't take credit for the idea, it was the brainchild, as they say, of Paul Buccieri, our esteemed president of the entire company, and we were sort of talking about the 25th anniversary of HISTORY.

"History is living, it's lively, and it's happening around us all the time, and the idea that history shouldn't be sort of constrained by, the channel, or books, or a class. Those are all exciting things, and we've done great work with the HISTORY channel itself, bringing history to life, but this just felt like the next step, making it more accessible to an audience of all ages, and backgrounds, and making real world connections with our audiences, and fans.

"Also, reaching a new generation who aren't necessarily tuning in to the HISTORY channel, but are fascinated by it, and sort of being able to provide context to things that are happening now, and help inform people about the decisions that they make.

"History is really important, to have that sort of understanding of what's happened in the past, how exciting and fun it is. We love that, because with HISTORYTalks, we're able to do a very deep dive on a single subject. So the first one is leadership and legacy. The day ends with Doris Kearns Goodwin, George Bush, and Bill Clinton.

"So, obviously they have a lot to say, all three of them, about leadership through the presidential lens, but there's different ways to look at it, different ways to approach leadership. One of our other panels is the alchemy of leadership, and among the panelists are Stanley McChrystal, who's the former commander of the U.S. and ISF in Afghanistan, so he's one of the highest ranked generals that we have.

"Elizabeth Samat, who's a professor of English at West Point and an author, she really approaches like teaching about literature. When you think about leadership and West Point, you've got a very specific idea of a military upbringing.

"But to be a good leader, you've got to understand a lot of other facets, so being well-read on many subjects, and understanding human nature, and human dynamics, is so important too. So, we're exploding this topic of leadership and legacy, in a way that I hope will surprise people, and inform them, and they'll walk away feeling very delighted and informed by what we've given to them through the day.

"Then HISTORYCon, is sort of a very different approach, where first of all we're celebrating all of our fan favorites, and super serving our fans with programming.

"We're bringing in Ancient Aliens, Pawn Stars, and American Pickers and just a lot of other top shows of ours. We're going to have talent from almost every show, which, we're really excited about.

"But then we're also doing what we call 'little-h' history, where we've got a Roman encampment, living historians, and reenactors who are going to be walking around, and then some very lively physical activities, to sort of bring those Instagrammable, shareable moments for families, and a younger generation.

"It's physical, it's fun, experiential, and it's lively, dynamic, and real. You can experience history there. So, it just felt like it's such a rich topic, why didn't we do this sooner? It's a great way to start. it's a great time to kick off."

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin will be involved in both events, and she is excited about the prospects. She says, "Just to be able to produce events where people who share a passion for something, they do it for comic books, they do it for a series of other things.

"Here, you're going to have people who love history coming together so that they can not only listen to people who will be presenting things for them, whether they're exhibits or conversations, taking photos, but they'll meet one another who have that shared interest. It's kind of like a massive picnic for people sharing a passion. I think it's a great idea."

She adds, "And they may then develop, especially given the online world that we're in, they may share some emails and then find out they can recommend books to each other, recommend movies to each other. It really could create some friendships in that kind of setting, that's a permanent thing rather than just the listening to the person for that 45 minutes or half an hour."

Goodwin believes that the collective experience is not a new idea, but certainly one that needs to be revived. She says, "It used to be a time when all the things we would go to see, whether it was a play or a symphony, you'd actually be in a place where it was. And now you can watch these things and hear them on a phone, which can be a much more isolating experience.

"And that's why live audiences, whether it's going to a concert or going to a live play or even going to a movie, but even more the other ones, gives you a feeling of a collective group that's listening at the same time and experiencing at the same time.

"So that's in a way, what this is doing at the very time when we're getting our entertainment in smaller and smaller venues, often by ourselves, to be able to share that.

"Before when you wanted to experience theater or music, you went to a place and you shared it with somebody. It's the same thing having written about Franklin Roosevelt, that when he would be on the radio, it was a collective event.

"Eight or nine out of ten radios would be turned on, and Saul Bellow said, you used to be able to walk down the street on a hot Chicago night and see everybody looking at their radio and hear his voice coming out the window. And you could keep walking and not miss a word of what he was saying.

"So again, today, you're not getting that collective news obviously, but even just that collective experience of sharing an event. This is a way of going in the opposite direction in a certain sense, which is great to get that collective experience back for people."

And those people don't have to be interested in the same aspects of history to experience that camaraderie.

Goodwin notes, "And you can imagine that the people who will be coming together with a shared love of history, some of which may be military history, some of which may be presidential history, some of which could be cultural history, some of which maybe African-American history, that they're coming at it from a different point of view.

"And yet they do share that understanding that the past can inform the present and the future. And one of the things that Teddy Roosevelt worried about was that when people in different sections or religions begin to see each other as the other, that's when democracy will be in trouble.

"And so in a certain sense, anything that brings people together from different parts of the country, from different ideas or different viewpoints on politics, but a shared love of something larger is a really important thing for the country."

For those who cannot make it to the first HISTORYTalks event in New York, Still says that the event is just the kick-off to a continuing series. She says, "It's a traveling speaker series of live events, and so this is our kickoff in New York, but we plan on traveling around the country, and as it's new, we're still working through all of those plans. The second event is to be announced, and we're looking at summer 2020."

Another goal of HISTORYCon is to engage young people in studying history beyond what they might get in a classroom.

Still explains, "if you think about these events that we're doing, because we are going to be inviting schools for most HISTORYCon, and we're building a curriculum, and there'll be more on that later, but just the importance of igniting that interest in it, and a younger generation of students who will inform the future.

"You know, we do have a serious responsibility to sort of open up the world to younger people, and this is a great opportunity to do that too."

In the end, the greatest goal of these events is to open up history to people of all ages.

Still says, "Creating these opportunities for [people] regardless of your age, you're able to geek out, sort of, on the subject matter, in a way that they've never been able to before, because when you're watching a show it's one thing, you enjoy it, you can share it on Twitter, and there is some interactivity, but there's nothing like that live experience of saying, wow, there are all of these other people who share this passion with me."


For more information on HISTORYTalks, click here.


For more information on HISTORYCon, click here.


EDITOR'S NOTE: As of March 11, 2020, HISTORYCon has been postponed. Watch the HISTORYCon web site for more information and new dates.

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