What Happened to the History Channel?
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 theory, religious 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.
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.