Friday, January 16, 2009

The Dumbing Down of the History Channel

I am and have always been an ardent fan of the History Channel and its spin-off, History International. When I do choose to sit down in front of the television, I rarely select anything with narrative in it; one of my friends, in fact, calls in non-fiction TV. I prefer these kinds of niche channels, ones where I can reasonably expect the content and quality to match certain conventions, in this case, history. The same can be said for my preference for the Discovery Channel (run by a different network). And yet, over the past year, maybe year and a half, I’ve noticed disturbing trends in the History Channel’s programming choices, trends that I fear will cause it to devolve into some amorphous conglomeration of programs that have no little to do with history.

Like the other networks, the History Channel has discovered the cost benefits of producing reality series, most notably Ax Men, Ice Road Truckers, Sandhogs and Tougher in Alaska. As reality series, these shows are clearly better conceived than Seriously, Dude, I’m Gay or Who’s Your Daddy. But I question the historicity of watching a collection of obnoxious men of questionable intellect driving transfer trucks. Granted, social historians like Studs Terkel have demonstrated the trials and tribulations of the working class as just as important as tales of princes and prime ministers, and I’ve come to prefer learning about the history of the working class (for example, Tony Robinson’s delightful Worst Jobs in History series). What I despise, however, are co-workers bitching about each other for the camera, especially when, because of the nature of reality television, I doubt their sincerity. Believe me when I say I can get my fill of co-workers bitching about each other at work: why would I want to see it on television when I get home? Clearly these shows are an attempt to copy the Discovery Channel’s success with The Deadliest Catch and Mike Rowe’s surprisingly charming Dirty Jobs. But when it comes to the content of these particular shows, like wine, I prefer my “history” with at least some vintage. Please give the grapes at least a little time to ferment before you cork the bottle.

Some of the History Channel’s reality shows do at least pretend to address history. These shows, like Surviving History, attempt to recreate historical artifacts. By far Surviving History is the worst. For forty minutes a passel of former workshop rejects jerry-rig medieval torture devices in an embarrassing pseudo-copy of MTV’s Jackass (which Jackass wanna-be can withstand the thumbscrews the longest?), with a ten minute spiel by some historian about what the torture device was designed to do. I can only imagine the former Jackass staffer who unwittingly found himself in a History Channel conference room, brazenly raising his hand and saying, “Oh, I have an idea.”

I will at least give the channel credit for not becoming all-reality, all-the-time. However, the entire reason for this tirade is because of another trend I’ve noticed in their programming—what I call the “let’s review” format. For such shows, the basic structure can be broken down to this—twelve minutes of introduction; commercials; twelve minutes of “let’s review,” where the same gee-wiz computer recreations are replayed, the same content is rehashed, though a different expert might weigh in; commercials; another twelve minutes of review material with maybe a teaser of new information added; commercials; and the final twelve minute “conclusion” where all the viewpoints of the various experts are rehashed. By far the worst offender is Jurassic Fight Club (more later on this notion of whether paleontology is history). In this show, fights between two dinosaurs are recreated in CGI, a cross between an autopsy procedure drama and mixed-martial arts bouts. However, with each twelve minute segment, another minute of the CGI battle is revealed, so that in order to follow the entire mini-movie from start to finish, one must watch the conclusion. This show is lead, not by a paleontologist, but by “dinosaur expert” (the actual title attributed to him onscreen) George Blasing, a former retail executive with a passion for fossils.

The “let’s review” format is clearly a reaction to American viewing habits. We can’t sit through commercials, and once they appear, we grab our remotes and begin to surf. If we arrive at the History Channel at, say, 8:20 p.m., then we can “catch up” with the content of the show and perhaps stick around for twelve minutes long enough to suffer the first commercial before we can surf away. That said, the most successful History Channel watcher is the one who arrives at 8:45 to see the conclusion.

Some shows, though, have cleverly been able to avoid the “let’s review” format by their very nature, for example, Wild West Tech, Cities of the Underworld or Engineering an Empire. Each twelve minute segment tackles a different technology or location, when, that is, in the case of Engineering an Empire, Peter Weller isn’t voraciously chewing the scenery.

Granted, the History Channel is not a history department in a university, where equal coverage and rigorous standards are the norm. One could argue that the History Channel is not intended to distribute history but to entertain those people who like history, with the essential disclaimer that fans of history “might also enjoy science and reality programming.” The History Channel is a profit venture, one that follows the ratings. The highest rated show to date, according to the History Channel’s website, is The Universe. Like paleontology, when did astronomy become history? Yes, the Big Bang, like the dinosaurs, occurred “in the past,” yet somehow I suspect that the paleontology and astronomy professors of this world might take issue. Actually, such science offerings are an attempt to leach viewers away from the Discovery Communications’ family of science channels.

Why is this an issue? I fear the trend set forth by the AETN (A&E Television Network), described on their corporate website as “a joint venture of The Hearst Corporation, Disney-ABC Television Group and NBC Universal.” A&E began as the “Arts and Entertainment Channel” before their discovery that true crime programming brought in higher ratings that Shakespeare and ballet, at which point the network dropped arts and entertainment from its name along with any programming even remotely artsy. Something similar occurred on The Learning Channel, when programmers discovered the reality cash cow, Trading Spaces, at which point the network devolved into TLC. I suspect, based on the number of channels currently offered by Discovery Communications versus the number of channels offered by AETN, that Discovery Communications is eating AETN’s lunch. As the History Channel begins to break out of the history niche and scramble after Discovery Communications’ viewers, how soon before they devolve so much that they, too, must drop “history” from their name? Has anyone noticed the recent change in the History Channel’s logo? The logo is now just a simple gold H. Is the H channel not far behind?

There is one bright spot on the horizon. Discovery Communications offers some history programming for their international networks. How soon before they smell blood in the water and begin to offer their own history channel in the United States?

1 comment:

  1. Whereas I can appreciate your concern, perhaps this will have an effect on your outlook. If you recall the beginnings of the History channel you could have actually named it the WWII or the Nazi channel. That war/timeframe consisted of probably 90% of their programming. It’s only in the last maybe 10 years or so do we find the expansion into all the other possibilities and WWII has more or less taken a back seat. So there is some evolution that is taking place, only time will tell if it is for the better or not.
    However I think the greater concern should be for the trend of “popular history” where things like the Da Vinci Code and UFO’s are brought up constantly in today’s programming. You can’t watch something about the Templar Knights without it being almost entirely about that (insert colorful word of your choice here) book anymore. And Since when have UFO’s become a historical science? I’d much rather see something on the big bang based on supported theory then a show on UFO sightings. Although I am still waiting on their response to my idea for a show about gay farmers called “Crop Circles.” We find that on the air and I think we have cause for alarm.