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What Happened to the History Channel?

February 24, 2012

Once upon a time, all I ever watched on television was the History Channel. I watched it compulsively. But while it has always aired programs of dubious historical value, this trend seems to have exploded in recent years. This (clearly biased) description of their programming from Wikipedia sums up the direction the channel has taken:

” For some unknown reason the History Channel rarely airs shows actually relative to History, rather many programs compare contemporary culture and technology with the past, while some programs have an unfortunately more esoteric focus such as conspiracy theoryreligious interpretation, UFO speculation, or reality television.” (source)

While the History Channel (which now, rather arrogantly calls itself simply “History”) once received criticism over its lack of historical variety and devotion to World War II topics (“The Hitler Channel” many called it), it now delves deeply into reality television. Shows like Pawn Stars, American Pickers,  American Restoration, and Ax Men (among many others) dominate the channel’s programming schedule. That none of these shows has anything to do with history is irrelevant. Nearly all of them have become runaway hits. According to Nielsen, Pawn Stars and American Pickers were the first, third, and fourth most watched programs on cable the week of January 23. My assumption many years ago was that History’s parent company, the A & E Networks, threw all of the programs they couldn’t fit into A & E’s programming into History’s. Whether that assumption is right or not, it’s clear that these reality programs have found their target audience.

Wait. What channel are we on?

Looking at their full list of programs, you’ll quickly notice how little historical substance there actually is. The programming can be divided into several generic categories: the future (mostly apocalyptic in tone), technology and gadgets, UFOs/aliens and the paranormal, reality shows, “mysteries” (also paranormal in nature), and Biblical exploitation. The message here is that history has disappeared from History.

This shouldn’t surprise people who have been watching the channel for years. History has been trading on sensationalism since the nineties. I used to love watching programs like “History’s Mysteries” or “Secrets of World War II.” While the latter actually dealt with some real history, the former typically explored elements of the paranormal such as Bigfoot, ghosts, and monsters. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the direction the network was heading. When the series Ice Road Truckers debuted, it still seemed anomalous. Perhaps this was a cast-off from A & E. However, when ratings for that show exceeded everything else on the channel, the future of “History” seemed certain. More reality programming, less substance.

History has since confined the majority of its old programs to a new channel called H2. Yet, even these programs display more of the same esoteric nonsense. For example, the series “Ancient Aliens” (I’m suppressing an eye roll) moved from History to H2. Apparently, even this utterly non-historical program was too historical to continue on History.

While it’s a losing battle, I’d like to offer History a few suggestions about how to reclaim seriousness and historicity:

  • Branch out into fictional television: A drama series about a fictional history professor at a prestigious East Coast university. The show would detail the real work that historians do: the occasional tedium of research, writer’s block, avoiding plagiarism, academic rivalry, teaching, etc. Liberally sprinkle all of these elements atop some quality melodrama and you have a hit show. Done right, this could take off a la Mad Men. Maybe, just maybe, it could even lead to a reality program that’s about (gulp) historians.
  • Live programming: A live show about history, current research in the field, new books, and arguments. The hosts would regularly spar with each other while taking viewers’ questions and comments via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, texts, and calls. Guests would include celebrated historians, scientists, authors, and celebrities.
  • Marquee programming series: History wants to do away with these (or at least move them to H2). Far be it from me to call this a mistake (clearly their current model has them raking in the money hand over fist), but it does take make a mockery of their name. I have an entire notebook full of suggestions for programming and I’ll include a few of my favorites here: the African theater of WWI, Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Man Who Defeated Napoleon, The Rise of Islam, The French Revolution (a multi-part series focusing not only on the causes, events, and stages of the Revolution up to Bonaparte, but also an exposition of the politically loaded historiography of the period, which is maybe more entertaining than the history itself!), No Exit: The Vietnam War, A history of the English language, Understanding the Unknowable: Prehistory, Australia: Colonizing a Continent, Ancient Africa, Voices of the Voiceless: Women in history, a multi-part history of the mystery religions, Grave Robbers! The Nasty History of Anatomy in Europe, Gypsies: A history of the Roma, The Backs that Built America: Labor in the Gilded Age, History on Film: The Problems of filming history, a history of American cities, Literature in its context (Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare, Les Miserables, War and Peace, etc.), a history of the CIA, history of the German Army, The Wealth of Nations: a history of capitalism. (That’s seriously the tip of the iceberg – if you read through all of those, congrats!)
  • Utilize new technologies to connect with a younger audience: I’m not talking about Facebook and Twitter. What I mean by “utilize new technologies” is develop programming that doesn’t just narrate and show. This means layering text and content over images and narration. This means using “digital footnotes” (!) to source historical claims. This means detailing and contrasting the historical literature by setting them in visual opposition to one another. This means listing resources that viewers can explore through their tablets or smart phones. There’s so much that History could be doing, but they’ve abandoned it in favor of reality programming.

The most interesting historical programming  is now being made exclusively for the web. For example, author John Green makes educational videos that are not only content-heavy and opinionated, but also educational. These are not mind-blowing videos, but they’re certainly more entertaining than anything I’ve seen on History.  They’re also smarter and funnier. Green’s not alone. A quick search yields up all kinds of interesting videos and content. While you still have to sift through the conspiracy theories, end-time prophecies, and alien videos, there remains a lot of unique, well-made content out there.

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51 Comments leave one →
  1. worldsmostinterestingblog permalink
    February 24, 2012 7:13 PM

    Thank God someone else feels the same.

    • Vince permalink
      December 19, 2013 12:35 AM

      And I thought I was the only one who felt this way, don’t get me wrong I enjoy the History Ch. but where is the history?
      It bothers me that this network calls itself The “History” channel… This is a dishonor to our four fathers and the past that once was.
      History is a part of who we all are and how we’ve became who and where we are today, not showing history on a history channel is a disgrace and the network executives either should be fired or create top rated shows about history, living up to the true name of the channel…..

      Vince

      • questioneverthing permalink
        July 15, 2014 4:05 PM

        I agree and also does anyone agree the same about animal planet it barely has anything do with wild life anymore.

    • Teresa permalink
      March 6, 2014 9:42 PM

      I simply can’t stand The History Channel anymore! I used to enjoy watching things like, “The Presidents,” which used to be on quite a bit. But this year, on President’s Day, of all days, they didn’t have it on! They kept having Pawn Stars all day long. I think that night, I saw a few of the President’s stories. What does Pawn Stars have to do with History, anyway? This is played entirely too much!!!!!!!!!!! Anyway, I’m glad that I’m not the only one who feels frustration at this. Well, maybe there will be another channel that does history….

      • questioneverthing permalink
        July 15, 2014 4:08 PM

        I guess it switched to reality show like shows, I wonder if they still use “where the past comes alive” slogan.

  2. February 24, 2012 7:52 PM

    What’s crazy is just how quickly the channel’s programming has transformed. When I left for Africa in 2009, the only reality show that I can remember is Ice Road Truckers. Contrast this with now: Top Gear, Top Shot, American Pickers, American Restoration, Pawn Stars, Ax Men, Cajun Pawn Stars, Full Metal Jousting, Mudcats, Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy, and Swamp People. Phew! That’s a LOT. That’s not history, not even a little bit. That’s just reality television. And given their penchant for one-word names, I really hope they change “History” to “Reality”. The irony would be delicious.

  3. September 8, 2012 8:19 AM

    The History Channel is absolutely awful. They show nothing but nonsense on there. I used to watch hours of this channel every day and now I don’t think I have watched any for over two years.

    For me the History Channel is history. I grew past any possibility of watching junk pawn and whatever else by the time I was about 4. And frankly I don’t give a wotsit about truckers who drive is a lot less dangerous that a winter commute round London on a horrid winters morning.

  4. Eddie B permalink
    October 24, 2012 12:12 PM

    If they don’t want to show history per-say, then please change your name to to junk or something like that.

  5. Alex X permalink
    November 24, 2012 2:41 AM

    I like many others used to love the history channel, but ancient aliens… garbage! all the reality TV. garbage. What the hell is that? I have never seen more claims without any evidence in my life! I honestly hate the history channel! Guess what guys, the nazi party had alien tech. FML I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.

  6. Riggo permalink
    February 15, 2013 12:12 AM

    I have to skim the guide weekly just to catch the few good shows they show nowadays , cival war journal being one. They never show the series they did on the revolution , or Washington , or even the four parter on Alexander. Occasionally they will show there episodes on Egypt or say they 300 doc. Heck they don’t even program to actual historical days from history, say MLK jr day, you’d think they’d run some docs on him At least on that day. Or the Washington series on Presidents’ Day. Or try to show some of the PBS docs like American expiernce or American masters . Maybe that’s not possible but those series show you can make quality docs on those subjects. There’s many more shows they used to show but I’m winging it off the top of my head. Also the repetitive nature do we really need all day of one reality show just bc it’s on that night. Not to mention all the alien and monsterquest shows, it’s outrageous and insulting. I enjoy series docs, and have to scan the guide to find them. However every tues at 7am my DVr is set for cival war journal, and Mondays for the real west . I assume a few years ago thy changed programmers . There’s enough reality shows on. Although in a bit of contradiction the reality shows they show are quality for the genre . I used to say give me PBS evening programming and the history Chanel along with tcm, and I’m good now it’s just PBS -(although its only a few select shows) and tcm and I’m good. Side note I’m not some old guy, well maybe I’m a mid 30s “street” kid. But I want my history channel back. While h2 is ok it’s still saturated with alien shows. I do realize my viewing preferences Aren’t the norm, just miss the old history chan, he’ll they don’t even have to make new shows, just give me access to all the old ones. Real life history . It’s a bit of a incoherent ramble but it’s 3am and I’ve been reading comments for an hour.

  7. Kmoss permalink
    April 11, 2013 9:43 AM

    reading the article and comments i couldn’t agree more, the history channel used to have such interesting and great programs on (save the apocalyptic and conspiracy theory shows that popped in from time to time). things like Modern Marvels, WWI and WWII related shows, and various war documentaries used to be all i ever watched on TV anymore at a point. Now its just turning into what MTV has become, and having to see how many constant reruns of what they put on now is even more sad to think of. I’m sorry but i gotta say whoever came up with the concept of reality TV needs a swift kick in the shins, because so far its only been taking over and ruining most of any of the channels that where once good

  8. April 13, 2013 1:37 PM

    What a bunch of slobs the “Pawn Stars” are, especially compared to the American Pickers. Why not have more American Pickers?!

  9. Robbert permalink
    May 16, 2013 5:44 PM

    Couldnt agree more with the article and the replies. Being European and a fan of history I haven been watching this channel many hours. As is mentioned the trouble started with iceroad truckers, but at the time it was woven in between history pogrammes. Todays schedule promises me twice WWII Soviet Storm, together with 9 times Storage Wars Texas, 8 Cajun Pawn Stars, 6 Storage Wars, 5 Pawn Stars, this is an actual count and shows the pathetic level this channel has reached. I dont think we European find any common ground with these series picturing fairly uneducated people doing the same thing time after time. I love the States as great country, and wonder why if the simplicity and stupidity displayed in these shows actually pleases anyone. Thought we are living in 2013 and have made attempts over many centuries to educate, become better and wiser. Funny that some of these shows on History demonstrate that we havent advanced much since the Neanderthalers.

  10. Steven Alt permalink
    June 21, 2013 3:44 PM

    MTV rarely has music, “reality” shows are scripted, The Travel channel has food and ghosts. I’ll stick with reruns of Seinfeld and Frasier.

  11. Chris Tafoya permalink
    July 25, 2013 12:48 PM

    Your observation of the current programming on the History Channel is right-on. It seems that the History Channel shows nothing but reruns upon reruns of Pawn Stars and American Pickers. PS and AP may have been hits for the History Channel, but enough is enough, please star airing something different.

  12. HAHAHistory permalink
    July 28, 2013 1:04 PM

    Screw TV period these days…

    I can find lectures on medieval wars/technological advancements/myths, World War II, the Universe, TED discussions, ect.ect.ect. All on the internet, that are usually ten fold better then any 1 hour program covering such a huge ammout of time in such a small time slot. Quality vs Quantity, Internet has the quality, while TV has the “we cover all bases but nothing in great detail.” There are some that come to mind that are worth the watch, then it’s back to TV off until nextweek to watch that rerun from early 2000 when they actually had something worthwhile.
    Pawn stars has some good history toward the object, with tidbits of timeline history thrown in the form of a note on the bottom of the screen, usually patronising us history nuts cause we already know what it is/used for, or have a hell of a better idea then the people bringing it in/Ron buying it. Ok ok, I’ll admit, I only watch Pawn Stars for Mark Hall-Patton… that man is one history nut I admire greatly and usually the only reason I watch all 30mins.. “oh oh it’s that guy who actually KNOWS a CRAP TON of history!”
    anyway thats enough typing on some random website… I could go on for “pages” on what’s complete trash, and what/part’s are not. Bottom line if I want to learn something, I pour many hours/days into research, not watch an hour long TV show that is geared toward the common (mindless) masses.

  13. Bill Parise permalink
    August 12, 2013 4:31 AM

    The saddest part of all this grappy programming is that we have to pay for it.

  14. Alex permalink
    August 17, 2013 10:35 AM

    Like most people who have commented here, I too was a great fan of the history channel especially because it offered an educative entertainment option unlike most of the other mind-numbing crap on television. It is therefore utterly disgusting to see the channel turn into the leading broadcaster of mind-numbing rubbish while still purporting to be an educative channel by maintaining the name “History”. It really has stooped to a new low, and what I don’t understand is who watches these shows. Why would anyone be interested in watching a fat bald guy and his friend drive around in a van, sifting through peoples garbage in the hope of finding some obscure piece of crap gold, all in the hope of turning some measly 20$ profit? And, surely all the reality shows belong on some other channel. Their current programming schedule is akin to CNN airing cartoons all day. It’s quite deceptive to say the least. I am not a historian but when I turn on a channel called ‘History’, it’s not outrageous to expect a show with historically significant content.

  15. August 18, 2013 7:01 AM

    Great article.

  16. Jeff permalink
    September 3, 2013 10:31 PM

    I remember watching hundreds of hours of History and Discovery in the late 90s when they actually had educational programming and interesting stuff that was considered “nerdy” at the time.

    I went without cable for quite a few years. I knew reality TV was a thing, but I had no idea how bad it was until my fiance and I decided to get the full Comcast 150+ digital channels around 2009. Got it hooked up, turned to my old standby History, and… What the fuck is this???

    We had that cable service for just a couple months before we canceled it. A&E, TLC, Discovery, History, etc. ALL JUST GARBAGE! We went so long without it, that we had no idea how bad it had become.

    I was just staying somewhere the other day that had cable, and happened on History channel again. I caught it when they had “Modern Marvels” on just by a stroke of luck, so I watched for a little while – long enough to catch their new slogan, “History made every day.”

    I guess that means that they are no longer into actual history – they just decided that their crap reality TV programming is somehow considered “making history.”

  17. George hayduke permalink
    November 3, 2013 6:28 PM

    History Channel is done. Just like MTV which originally was a novel concept but succembed to advertising. I havent even thought about that channel in a while. Its too bad, love History. I guess I stick to books and NPR. One thing is false: we do NOT have to pay for it. I usually cancel TV for the summer, right around March 1 and pick it up again around Sept 1. Try it….!

  18. Phil permalink
    November 21, 2013 4:47 PM

    I agree with those who lament the loss of historical programming. This channel ought to be called something else. It has devolved into a junk channel not worth watching. Very disappointing.

  19. November 21, 2013 11:17 PM

    The History Channel used to be my favorite; it is NOT watching anymore. History in the making, my ass.

    It began going downhill when they started talking about guys who chopped trees or drove on ice. Now it’s all about pawn shops, garage sales, and who the knows what.

  20. darren farella permalink
    December 7, 2013 10:35 PM

    I just turned on the history channel and the show was a very Shelby Christmas, seriously, that’s it im all done with the history channel. I think I will just go back to reading history books.

  21. Philip permalink
    December 23, 2013 7:09 PM

    The executives of the History Channel should be fire and turn in to Torgos Executive Powder.

  22. nuyt@yahoo.com permalink
    December 30, 2013 4:11 PM

    They just sold out…. idiots today just gobble up reality tv BS drama, theres millions of years of history you could examine and the best you can do is WWII its just sad I know everything there is to know about WW f’n II in b&w , color and from space WWII has been analyzed to death now that H2 is getting filled up with BS programing they will probably come out with H3 and for a time they will show some historical programing and then in a few years it will just be all reality / aliens / pawn BS.

    Look at the military channel theyre starting t to have non military related programing in a few years it will be all reality BS pawn bigfoot crap

  23. TheCarMan permalink
    January 4, 2014 10:05 AM

    Why on earth can they not show something like James Burke’s “Connections” series or “The Day the Universe Changed”? Filled with history, technology and relevant information. Not to mention it’s very high entertainment level. Sorry, but watching someone sell off documents from presidents Washington, Lincoln or Grant for gambling money just doesn’t make me get excited … except to say “what an asshat!”

  24. halloween3 permalink
    January 30, 2014 6:50 PM

    The history channel has become nothing but stupid shows. With a lot of the shows they make it seem it is fact when it is not and they word things to make it sound like it is. The truth can’t be found on this channel with their shows.

  25. Jose permalink
    June 28, 2014 3:30 PM

    Totally agree, History was a great Channel and suddenly they decided to change the excellent documentaries by stupid programs.

  26. Tom permalink
    July 17, 2014 3:44 PM

    Who here actually enjoys watching a family of uneducated retards slog it out over a box of crusty documents on the so called “History” channel???
    What happened to shows like Battles B.C and Presidents where they actually taught you something. And seriously, Aliens? Surely they’ve run out of re-runs of re-runs of that stupid rubbish.

  27. August 3, 2014 5:51 AM

    this is crazy !!! where do I get some kind of history and not several groups of dysfunctial illiterate jerks selling planted junk ??? what is happening to this world ???

  28. Chris permalink
    August 4, 2014 7:30 PM

    We live in a soulless society where money is all that really matters to anyone. Everyone knows this, yet you people act surprised when the History Channel trades substance for ratings. You would do it too if you were in their position, or you wouldn’t and you would go out of business altogether. Welcome to capitalism.

    • Elmore permalink
      January 12, 2016 6:02 AM

      You nailed it and this was my thought also. Intelligent people must realize that the majority of people in this country are of questionable intelligence. They don’t want real history because it is complex and requires a bit of thought by the viewer. They want this hillbilly garbage and that is what drives the ratings up. As you have indicated you can’t blame the History Channel for giving these morons exactly what they want. If the History Channel aired good documentaries like the British series World at War their ratings would drop because only intelligent viewers who what to know some real history about WW2 would watch it and intelligent viewers are in the minority.

  29. Ian permalink
    August 27, 2014 7:27 AM

    Even the programs that show “history” are garbage. It’s all just computer animation and role playing reenactors. The “experts” being interviewed include “military historians” with bad teeth and the likes of Brian Williams & Dr. Oz. These people are not historians.

  30. Dave permalink
    September 6, 2014 8:55 PM

    I used to love the History Channel when it was about history. Now, I only watch it when I’m channel surfing and get lucky when I pass it and they have a show on about history. I just watched the Third Reich, then pawn crap came on, so I changed it. But I have to agree with Chris. We loved the History Channel when it was about history and educational programming. But obviously, more people like pawn crap and watching a bunch of greasers rebuild cars. So history went with the money just like everyone else. It’s always about the money. Then we wonder about the dumbing down of America.

  31. September 21, 2014 9:28 PM

    History? I don’t think so. Not anymore. Now I read (the real thing) or play my guitar.

  32. Zaltman permalink
    April 3, 2015 7:52 AM

    I thought I was the only one. Remember the days where you had a hard time choosing which channel you wanted to watch, discovery, ngc, history or travel channel? Now NGC seems the only one that has better programming than the rest. Still waiting for these reality shows to blow over but looks like it’s still sticking around.

  33. Elmore permalink
    January 13, 2016 5:41 AM

    . Intelligent people must realize that the majority of people in this country are of questionable intelligence. They don’t want real history because it is complex and requires a bit of thought by the viewer. They want this hillbilly garbage and that is what drives the ratings up. As Chris and Dave indicated above you can’t blame the History Channel for giving these people exactly what they want. If the History Channel aired good documentaries like the British series The World at War their ratings would drop because only intelligent viewers who what to know some real history about WW2 would watch it and intelligent viewers are in the minority

  34. January 31, 2016 7:27 AM

    The wild goose chase shows such as oak island, hunting Hitler, missing in Alaska there are to many to list. Why or how are these shows popular very disappointed in how the History channel can keep calling themselves a history channel……

  35. Mark permalink
    March 3, 2016 1:19 AM

    it seems that cable is catering to poor white trash or pseudo science trash these days; If i see ONE more program about Roswell, i will kick the TV

  36. Lisa L permalink
    March 13, 2016 8:42 AM

    I used to love the history channel. Loved history international as well…WHEN it related to history…it provided invaluable lessons for my kids and I enjoyed learning too! They need to bring this back, BOTH of tem. But I guess it’s all in the grand plan to forget history so next generations won’t see what’s coming next…if we forget our history and some of the atrocious things that happened long ago it is destined to repeat itself.

  37. Steve permalink
    March 13, 2016 12:32 PM

    History Channel Two was and is way better than that “Vice” Crap!!! At least they can bring H2 back!! I read that it has nothing to do with History?? UFO’s,Aliens,Modern Marvels, Ghost’s ect… Go Back many years!! Please bring H2 back, can’t say it enough!! If not, bring all the shows that Aired on H2, under a different Channel name.
    Thank You for listening to me Bloviate!!

  38. J hilly permalink
    March 19, 2016 8:12 AM

    Seriously…I NEVER watch any of the crap on vice channel…don’t even want the channel…Haunted History was the best…with 1,000 channels WHY can’t we have these shows????

  39. Cheryl permalink
    March 24, 2016 11:02 AM

    Viceland is the worst programming on TV. I paid to get the History ch. 66 and H2 242. All the History ch. has on are Pawn Stars and another junk show and the fun programming on H2 is gone. I want H2 back!!

  40. March 26, 2016 3:28 PM

    What’s happened to the history channel is an example of the many ways that people in power are succeeding in dumbing down American people. It’s been proven in studies that programs like Fox News actually makes people more ignorant than if they didn’t watch tv at all. The history channel as it is now is probably even more effective at this. TV programming is just a small part of a brain washing scheme that certain elements of our society are using to make us ignorant and grossly misinformed in an effort to make us more compliant, gullible, susceptible to propaganda, and easier to control. Another example is in many of our schools, where, under pressure from politicians and powerful people who argue that schools should be teaching “American exceptionalism” and avoid teaching parts of American history that are less than flattering, they have deleted many important past events and issues from the history curriculum. I guess that could risk emboldening students with wisdom and knowledge about how to avoid repeating past mistakes and injustices. Of course, critical thinking skills would not be helpful either towards maintaining a population of “sheeple”, so other subjects, like science, are manipulated as well. I’ve brought this up in other blogs as well only to discover, unsurprisingly considering that the MSM is part of the very thing that I’m talking about, that my comment wasn’t printed. I guess I’ll see what happens here.

  41. May 16, 2016 11:08 AM

    It is even worse today! Everything to do with silly theories, Bible stories, UFOs, and conspiracy. Where is the history?

  42. Bob permalink
    February 19, 2017 6:52 PM

    Change the name to reflect what the History Channel now is – Reality Junk. It is worthless now and I wish they would just take it off the lineup.

  43. micheal permalink
    April 15, 2017 12:16 AM

    The least they could do is change their name to “Reality” channel. I stopped watching this channel years ago. Thank goodness for Streaming. Now I can watch WHATEVER THE HELL I WANT.

  44. Khem permalink
    April 17, 2017 3:46 PM

    The past year, everytime I have channel flipped by the History Channel, the only thing on there has been something called “American Pickers,” day after day and week after week. I just flip on by withyout even stopping these days. Hope your happy.

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