These days most people get their information about archaeology from educational programs on such TV networks as The Learning Channel, Arts and Entertainment, The Discovery Channel, PBS and NBC. But how accurate are these programs? Are facts fudged to grab better ratings and to entertain? Are some networks better than others at reporting archaeology?
For 15 years I’ve been writing, producing, designing and fixing archaeology television documentaries. Usually my work is behind the scenes, and it often goes uncredited. Some of my experiences have been delightful, but many—far too many—have been bizarre, and it’s time to let you in on the dark secrets lurking behind the camera.
For one, the people presenting material on ancient Greece or Rome generally know almost nothing about that history. Rather than using knowledgeable experts, the networks prefer Hollywood celebrities because of their ratings value. “Why should we get a professor to host a program when we can get a celebrity?” one producer for Time Warner told me. “Professors are good as color commentators, like in a football broadcast, but the name of this game is entertainment, first and foremost.”
Thus Charlton Heston, Kathleen Turner, Leonard Nimoy, Jean Simmons, John Rhys-Davies or Joe Mantegna are brought in for a day or two to narrate already-shot footage. Often the celebrity has a connection with an archaeological or biblical movie or TV series, such as the Raiders of the Lost Ark movies (Rhys-Davies), Romancing the Stone (Turner), The Robe (Simmons) and Ben Hur (Heston), which supposedly makes the audience think the star knows what he or she is talking about—something equivalent to “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV!”
In fact, the celebrity is normally coached by a producer who knows even less than the hired talent. The result can be embarrassingly humorous. In narrating a history of Rome for the Arts and Entertainment network, for example, Joe Mantegna continually refers to the consuls (leaders) of ancient Rome as “councils.” And the three-syllable word “plebeians” (pronounced pli-bee’-ans) came out sounding like pleeb’-yuns, now with only two syllables.
Sometimes the director has no idea what the narrator is talking about, but due to time and budget constraints must find some image to use, even if it has no connection to the story. For example, Mantegna’s narration about the infants Romulus and Remus, the future founders of Rome, was illustrated by images of two winged cupids. A section on Rome’s early days with Romulus and Remus as leaders was dramatized with Renaissance-period close-ups of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle!
How do we get such blatant inaccuracies? The networks farm out their specials to production 046companies. If the companies make lively shows with vivid images and good celebrities, network programming executives accept the shows. After all, these bosses don’t know much about the subject. If the shows get good ratings, more are ordered from the production company and its contract is renewed or expanded. Accuracy is given some importance, but it is not a top priority. In fact, there is no consistent fact-checking policy at any of the networks. By contrast, if an article is to be published in the New Yorker or the New York Times, fact-checkers thoroughly scour the manuscript (despite occasional embarrassing lapses). The concept of the professional fact-checker simply does not exist in media television.
The networks are loose with the facts for several reasons. Sometimes the documentary tells a story about someone whose image doesn’t survive, such as the Carthaginian king Hannibal, so the producers select an arbitrary image to fill the blank screen. Sometimes the rights to an accurate image are owned by someone else (a museum, or a photo collection), who would charge the filmmaker a fee for using the image. Sometimes a museum with the desired object is located too far away, and so, for economy, another image is substituted. Sometimes, hampered by budgets and deadlines, or just a lack of devotion to the project, directors will use any-old image because they believe viewers won’t know they are being deceived. So an Arts and Entertainment documentary discussing Roman houses can (and does!) pan over images of Etruscan tombs!
To save money, these documentaries frequently recycle the same music and stock footage over and over. Scenes of modern British men imitating Roman legions have appeared (with the same music) in about a dozen different documentaries shown on Arts and Entertainment and The History Channel.
There is an accepted formula for making a television documentary. It rarely varies. The celebrity host appears in a fake antique set to welcome the viewer. The program is broken up into chapters in which academics are interviewed and their comments are interspersed with illustrative semi-accurate footage. Because these shows are often limited to a budget of between $60,000 and $100,000, the academic experts are not always the top people in the field but simply professors living near the “shoot” or near one of the production company’s home bases. Well-known cultural commentators with a love of the camera, like Camille Paglia, are sought out as “authorities,” especially if they are willing to talk about anything from Stone Age mother-goddesses to the pyramid-builders, Greeks and Romans. Paglia is a clever, intelligent teacher and author, but she is hardly an expert in all these areas. In the same vein, why interview Rod Steiger or Charlton Heston about the Romans, as has been done?
For the most part, the professors themselves usually provide accurate accounts of ancient culture, and their advice is used as inspiration by screenwriters. The dirty secret about these documentaries is that the network pays the crew, the producer and the celebrity talent, but the professors are paid a pittance, if they are paid at all. When I asked one network producer about this, he said: “You guys have no effective union and no agents, so we can get away with this and keep more money for ourselves. An actor won’t even talk to us except through an agent, but you guys talk to us for nothing. Most of you don’t even know you should get paid for your expertise!” At least he was candid.
Documentaries normally are televised up to 20 times on their network over a period of several years, and then they are often sold as videos, nationally and internationally. The networks make considerable money from these videos, without taking much financial risk. The professors, on the other hand, may see a hundred dollars, if they are lucky (and if the check doesn’t bounce, which happened to me!).
The networks could easily improve on the accuracy of their films by hiring professors to review them at a ridiculously low cost. But networks don’t want a final accuracy check. Catching errors at the last minute might require re-shoots, which can be costly; hiring a fact-checker, too, would cost something. Getting things right, from the point of view of scholarship, conflicts with the bottom line of these productions: the maximization of profits. As you are constantly reminded if you work even a short time in this field, networks are businesses, not educational or public-service institutions. “If you want a friend,” one network producer told me, “get a dog.”
I am often asked who is the best academic at doing interviews for archaeological documentaries. The 047consensus of everyone I have worked with is that it is Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, an expert on Roman baths and the long-time director of the British School in Rome. Wallace-Hadrill is not only a highly respected scholar, knowledgeable about Roman imperial history and architecture, but he also enjoys being on television. Young and personable, he gives a performance, not a discourse. His comments are notoriously witty and often slightly naughty and even scatological. He gestures flamboyantly, mugging the camera, always with the trace of a grin that seems to say: “I know I’m hamming it up, but I’m having a good time and imparting accurate information to the public. Let’s all have fun!” He’s perfect, and the scholars who criticize him for his efforts are generally simply jealous of his talent and fame.
About ten years ago, Arts and Entertainment was putting together a documentary titled Human Sacrifice, which looked at examples of this bloody ritual from around the world. The producers thought the program would garner good ratings because of its historical importance and violent subject matter. I was asked to write, design (they call it storyboarding) and direct a nine-minute “chapter” on the slaughter of infants in ancient Carthage. It had to be nine minutes so it could be bracketed between commercials. The whole program would be 52 minutes, but my task as the unit director of this small segment was nonetheless a formidable one.
I was asked to negotiate in French with the Tunisian Antiquities Service for permission to film Carthage’s ancient sites. A crew of three Italians would be sent from Rome: a cinematographer, a lighting specialist and 048a sound expert. I was to select all the locations, equipment setups and camera angles, and to choose the desired mood lighting. I then had to write a script with detailed instructions to the film’s principal director/producer, to help him or her assemble the raw footage back in the States. The whole “shoot” was to be managed in Italian since the crew spoke no English.
Now the problems began. Neither the production company contracted by Arts and Entertainment nor the network itself wanted to pay my airfare to Tunisia. The production company knew I was already planning to travel to Tunisia to lead a tour for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, so they decided to delay the “shoot” until then. They put the Italian crew up in the hotel where our tour group was staying. When I finished lecturing and touring each day, I would return to the hotel for dinner. I would spend the first part of the meal at a table with my cruise companions, then excuse myself and go to another table in a different room where the Italian crew was awaiting my instructions. I gave the crew detailed shooting plans for the next day; my wife later accompanied them to the sites, oversaw the shooting and handled the language problems. This is how this segment of the movie was actually made.
After all this effort and considerable indigestion, I completed the shoot to my satisfaction and prepared to travel to Sicily with my cruise group. Once I had left, the Italian crew was responsible for finding an economical way to send the film segment back to the States to be edited and processed into the overall documentary. Unfortunately, the segment never arrived in America. The production company was at a loss how to proceed; at the last minute, with the air date pending, they bought some old footage of ancient Carthage that I had shot years earlier for the 049American Museum of Natural History. This old footage, stuck onto a new interview they did with me, is what appears in the final version of the documentary.
Some months went by, but I never received a check from Arts and Entertainment for my work. Finally I phoned the producer, who told me that the $500 I was to have received for my labors (which didn’t seem like an awful lot of money, considering what Arts and Entertainment would gross on the film) would not be paid to me because I had failed to deliver completed footage to them. I pointed out that I was not responsible for shipping the video to them, but it took two more months of appeals before they relented and sent me the money. The program has aired at least eight times on national television and made a fortune—for someone!
Gratuitous sex and violence play a much bigger role in TV archaeological documentaries than is often realized. About five years ago I was brought in to write a mini-script for the NBC documentary series called Lost Civilizations. My task was to introduce the ancient Romans to the American public. My instructions were to “work in some sex and violence right up front.” I wanted to begin with the rise to power of the tribe known as the Latins in the environs of Rome, but I was told we had to open with gladiators. The producer’s assistant explained:
We make our films for the people of Iowa. They like a grabber at the front so they don’t click that remote. We are working to stop them from clicking that thing. That’s what making TV documentary is about. Think of Iowa, so they don’t switch to Baywatch!
My introduction was therefore rewritten some weeks later by someone else to begin with bloody combats. By the time the program aired, almost all my ideas were gone.
On the other hand, The Learning Channel’s production A Roman Plague, made six years ago, allowed me to air my theories concerning malaria and the fall of Rome. I gave the producer shooting locations and wrote a treatment of the subject, which their writers followed carefully. I was consulted daily. When I asked to see a final cut, believing that I would be greeted with the usual empty promises, they sent me a VHS of the show in rough-cut form. I pointed out five blatant misquotes and mistakes. Despite the usual pressure to wrap up the shoot and get the video on the air quickly, they re-edited and even re-shot scenes in order to guarantee accuracy. For all of these reasons, I rank The Learning Channel’s original productions at the top of the list of educational archaeological documentaries.
But are they ever cheap! For all my work they paid me only $100, and the show has aired nationally, with sponsors, 14 times!
During the last day’s shoot on A Roman Plague, I slipped on the edge of a wall of a Roman villa and fell heavily against a corrugated tin roof covering, cutting my head. Unfortunately, it kept bleeding, and I was supposed to have a speaking part on site. It was early evening, the sun was setting, and the director was clearly upset. “Damn it,” he said. “We’re losing the light. Put your hat on, hide the blood and say your lines or we’ll lose this.” I put my hat on in such a way as to hold the blood in and we did the take, which is included in the film. Immediately after the shoot I was treated by the cinematographer, who had read something about first aid. I never did get to a doctor.
This past summer I worked on a wonderful BBC TV production, Malaria and the Fall of Rome. This documentary is part of the BBC’s Meet the Ancestors series, which is hosted by Julian Richards, the well-known British “presenter” (a person who hosts a fact-based program and appears throughout it on site). The experience was generally highly positive; there was the most thorough fact-checking I had ever encountered, and the show had a director less interested in violence and sex than in getting things right. The result is a strong, accurate and surprisingly entertaining hour. The only trouble was that I had to fly all the way to Umbria, Italy, for a day and a half and then fly home to Arizona the following day to teach class.
What can we learn from all this? Probably just what you’d expect. Your TV is largely a medium for entertainment, rarely for an education in ancient history, and archaeological documentaries are decidedly not a substitute for learning the old-fashioned way—through study. If, however, they inspire us to dig deeper and learn more, they will have served a valuable purpose.
These days most people get their information about archaeology from educational programs on such TV networks as The Learning Channel, Arts and Entertainment, The Discovery Channel, PBS and NBC. But how accurate are these programs? Are facts fudged to grab better ratings and to entertain? Are some networks better than others at reporting archaeology? For 15 years I’ve been writing, producing, designing and fixing archaeology television documentaries. Usually my work is behind the scenes, and it often goes uncredited. Some of my experiences have been delightful, but many—far too many—have been bizarre, and it’s time to let you in […]