I have a running joke among my family and friends: we often ask each other the question, “Remember when MTV was a music channel?” Of course the joke centers around the fact that MTV — along with sister stations MTV2, VH1, and even CMT — has largely moved away from music videos in favor of different types of reality programming.
Those of us who lament the change in these networks’ focus tend to point out the irony of the names behind their abbreviations — Music Television and Video Hits 1 — to prove our point. The MTV Networks have abandoned what they set out to be, and we can say the same about History. These days, the programming on what used to be The History Channel has transformed from documentaries about, well, history to reality shows that firmly plant themselves in the modern era.
To consider the history of History, we have to go way back in our time machines to 1995. That was the year the Hearst Company, Universal, and Disney (admit it — you were wondering how long it would take me to get to a Disney reference) teamed up to launch The History Channel. The History Channel’s lineup in those early days consisted largely of modestly budgeted documentary series chock full of historical nuggets and really terrible reenactments of events. It helps to think of early History Channel as a less stuffy version of PBS, with commercials for products not available in stores in place of pledge breaks. (Give me ads for The Clapper and Chia Pets over a phone bank and an offer of a free tote bag with a $250 contribution anyday!)
Many early History Channel series featured inexplicable celebrity hosts. Who can forget Civil War Journal, featuring, um, Danny Glover? Or how about Extreme History, with your host Roger Daltrey? At least Kenny Rogers and David and Keith Carradine had the requisite music and acting backgrounds that suited their hosting History Channel series about the Old West.
In the ’90s the network aired so many documentaries on World War II that it earned the rather nasty nickname “The Hitler Channel.” At the same time, critics decried The History Channel’s alleged bent towards American history, which makes perfect sense, when you think of all those World War II battles that took place here in the states — not to mention all-American hosts like Daltrey. Go figure.