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Ferguson Wins Emmy for Documentary

Ferguson, History and HBS professor, honored for “The Ascent of Money”

By Linda Zhang, Contributing Writer

History professor Niall C. Ferguson took home the International Emmy Award for “Best Documentary” last week for his six-part series, “The Ascent of Money,” which chronicles the history of money, credit, and banking from Babylon to the current financial crisis.

The documentary—which was reduced to four parts and aired on PBS in July 2009—shares the title of Ferguson’s tenth book and is based on his course “History 1961: International Financial History, 1700 to Present,” which was last taught at the College in the fall of 2007.

“[The film] really grew out of the class History 1961 and was a great way of setting up the argument,” said Ferguson, who holds a joint appointment at the Business School, in an interview on Saturday. “That really helped me to write [it]”.

The course is scheduled to be offered in the 2010-2011 school year under a new course catalog number.

Public-service broadcast Channel 4 in the UK first aired the production in 2008, while PBS aired a shorter U.S. version in January and July 2009, in time for the bank collapses and bailouts of the global financial crisis.

“While that was happening, the economy was collapsing, so it became timely,” said the documentary’s Executive-in-Charge Stephen Segaller, who produced the film for WNET.org. “We wanted to get it out as quickly as possible.”

The film was directed by the award-winning documentarian Adrian Pennink, who also directed Ferguson’s previous film, which was based on his book “Empire: The Rise and the Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.”

But according to Pennink, “The Ascent of Money,” posed a unique challenge for him as a director—describing money and markets with images.

“Its not like making history of the British empire,” Pennink said. “This one was much harder to visualize [...] and make it interesting to watch.” He called making “a challenging and intellectually robust TV series also popular” the most challenging aspect of the project.

Ferguson said that he believes the film accomplishes his goal of reaching a large audience, despite the lack of financial knowledge currently available to laymen.

“Ignorance of financial history is one of the things that caused this crisis—this apparent belief that all the financial problems of the past cannot occur again,” Ferguson said. “It is not an elite subject, it is a common subject.”

The film presents a timely warning against the danger of the United States’ continued dependence on China for credit, particularly in light of the ongoing financial crisis.

“It is not quite the happy marriage it used to be. One part does all the saving and one does all the spending,” Ferguson said.

Pennink and Ferguson are currently in the process of creating a TV series based on another course taught by Ferguson, “History 2921: The Western Ascendency.”

Both hope that PBS will decide to sign on to the project, which is planned to be completed at the end of 2010 and broadcast in 2011.

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Social Sciences DivisionHarvard Business SchoolHistory