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.
Not long after the network began, The History Channel’s longest-running, signature show made its debut: Modern Marvels. The series, which looks at different features of modern life through a historical lens, boasts more than 500 episodes over more than a decade and a half.
Modern Marvels has remained so steadfastly popular that even old reruns still appear on the network during the day. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much of a perusal of TV Guide to discover that Modern Marvels is one of the few actual historical programs on History these days.
History started to make a turn away from its namesake in 2007 with the debut of Ice Road Truckers. The documentary series about truck drivers with apparent nerves of steel who drive over frozen rivers in the winter months to deliver supplies to natural gas companies located above the Arctic Circle makes no bones about its lack of historical references. Nevertheless, it has had its compelling moments — and made for some innovative production.
Alas, it would appear that there’s only so much driving across the Canadian Arctic that viewers can take, so History revamped the show into IRT: Deadliest Roads (because abbreviations are so badass), which put the truckers from the original series in tractor-trailers on dangerous roads all over the globe. Trust me: it’s even less exciting than it sounds.
Along with Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers — or IRT, if you’re really cool — helped usher in the era of extreme-job and extreme-lifestyle chic. Surf with your remote and you’ll find countless series that take wide-eyed looks at jobs and lifestyles that require specialized skills and more than a measure of bravery. History has contributed a couple more shows to that genre: Ax Men and Swamp People. As entertaining as the two series are, neither one dwells much on the history of lumberjacks or denizens of Louisiana swamps — other than legendary stories like that of “One-Eye”:
I should note that two reality shows on History actually make somewhat of a historical connection. You might learn a thing or two from Pawn Stars (unlike those other pawn shows) or American Pickers, but don’t let that deter you from watching. Pawn Stars centers mostly on the unique items that come through World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, along with owner Rick Harrison and the bozos who work there, while American Pickers concerns itself more with the unique finds from the guys at Antique Archaeology who bicker like a couple of old maids.
What’s worse than non-historical reality shows on History? The oddball speculative programs, of course. When I visit my parents on Saturday mornings, I often find my dad watching some program about aliens on History. Even if you believe aliens rule the galaxy and float around in their spaceships, visiting various places on the globe (they seem to love Indiana and Mexico City for some reason), you have to admit that there’s just not enough evidence in the historical record to warrant all this programming!
Ancient Aliens is simply the most laughable of the extraterrestrial-themed offerings. According to this program, aliens are responsible for every major historical event and/or discovery in some way, shape, or form.
Author Brad Lockwood satirizes the series by writing:
Ancient alien theorists suggest that macaroni and cheese is simply too tasty to not be the creation of extraterrestrials. Sent from outer space as early as 8,000 BCE (when aliens first taught humans to domesticate sheep) the divine combination was fully revealed 5,000 years later, when the Chinese invented pasta – No doubt aided by aliens.
This is how any subject of antiquity or archeological site is handled on History’s “Ancient Aliens” – perhaps the only show that creates more skeptics than believers the longer one watches. While the show isn’t a ratings bonanza for the network, more mind-boggling than addictive entertainment, it highlights how far “History” – the notion and cable network – has come.
The end of the world frenzy has provided History with more speculative fodder. You don’t have to look too far forward in your cable or satellite onscreen guide to find some sort of program on Nostradamus’ visions of the end of the world, or the Mayans’ calendar prophecy. Now, I’m not knocking belief in either predictions, but even if you’ve cashed out your retirement to party it up before Armageddon this December, you have to allow that these shows rely more on interpretation and speculation than actual historical fact.
Of all the speculative programming on History, Life After People absolutely takes the cake. This miniseries tells the story of what might happen to the world if all humanity suddenly disappeared. As the narrator intones, “This isn’t the story of how we might vanish… it’s the story of what will happen to the world we leave behind.”
The show speculates chains of events that occur after the mass disappearance and guesses what may happen to different natural and manufactured elements as a result of these events. Listen in the clip below for dumb phrases like “___ years after people,” and “in the time of humans.”
It’s so lame that I’m giving you a second helping. Don’t let whatever you’re drinking come shooting out of your nose.
Not only is Life After People not historical, but it’s also completely ridiculous (though I have to admit that some of the computer animation is pretty cool). If we’re not here, who cares what happens to skylines and cars and monuments? We won’t be around to do anything about it! I’ll just put it out there: Life After People is the most useless television program ever (and yes, I know about So You Think You Can Dance).
Oddly enough, this unusual strategy — get rid of all but one of the words in your name, then shy away from that one word — has paid off for History. According to TV By The Numbers, History was the second-highest rated cable network in the third quarter of 2011, with a 12% increase in viewership. Even their more traditional historical programming has seen an uptick in recent years. History does show more of those traditional shows and specials on its sister network, H2, but that channel could turn out like MTV2 did and become a carbon copy of the network that spawned it.
Now, lest you think I’m the only one complaining about History’s lack of history, others have noticed it too. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has made his disdain for History’s newer programming clear on Twitter, and Lockwood’s article asks, “Where’s the history on History?” I can’t help but think that there are more of us who hate to see History stray as far as it does from what it’s supposed to be.
I sometimes wonder if the suits at MTV made a conscious decision to move further away from music videos, and I can’t help but wonder the same thing about History. Was it a bold move or a gradual drift away from the historical programming that was the network’s original bread and butter? Either way, History often manages to fall far short of its name — or did the marketing folks just leave the wrong word in when they shortened the network’s brand name?