A while back, it became fashionably witty to refer to the History Channel as “the Hitler Channel,” because going by its schedule, you’d think World War II accounted for about eighty percent of the human record. It may have seemed like the network had a soft spot for National Socialism, but really it was simple laziness: the abundance of WWII film footage made it easy for them to fill out their lineup with documentaries on dogfights, D-Day, and legendary officers like George Patton and Tom Hanks.
Decorated with an Academy Award for outflanking the box office at the battle of Philadelphia.
To be fair, though, it wasn’t unreasonable for the network to air some extra programming devoted to World War II, seeing as that conflict did kill seventy million people and shape the world we’ve known ever since.
Besides, it was awesome.
In the past few years, however, things have changed. The History Channel has relegated most of their shows about planes, guns, and fascists to their mildly psychotic offshoot, the Military History Channel. This has left them with a lot of newly available airtime, which they’ve used to… go completely nuts.
First, they changed their official name from ‘the History Channel’ to simply ‘History,’ apparently hoping to trademark an entire academic subject. Paradoxically, however, their programming has less than ever to do with the study of the human past. Nowadays, operating under the premise that ‘everything becomes history as soon as it happens,’ they just make shows about whatever the hell they want.
Like, for instance, Ice Road Truckers: a program that follows gruff, prideful bear-men as they drive heavy trucks over the long, treacherous routes of the frozen north. Aside from the odd truck breaking through the ice, most of the show just depicts the truckers cussing at each other over the CB and bragging to the camera about how suicidal and thankless their job is.
"No one appreciates the risks we take. The only thanks we get is extra pay and a multi-season television show."
This show bears no more relevance to history than radish farming does to particle physics. The only link to anything historical that the show’s promoters can come up with is that these cold-weather truckers are “making history” — which sounds like the kind of B.S. logic we’d use to shoehorn Metallica into an eighth-grade social studies paper on “any historical topic.”
Which Has Been Better for America: Metallica or the Homestead Act?
A Paper by Zach West, Class 8D
Despite — or perhaps because of — its conspicuous absence of historical content, Ice Road Truckers has become one of the network’s most successful shows. So they followed it up with Ax Men, which is the exact same thing, only with lumberjacks instead of truck drivers. Hey, what would you rather watch: a show about the Black Death, or a show that has chainsaws?
Zombie movies incorporate a little of both. PROBLEM SOLVED.
And speaking of saws, another new History show, Sliced, explores the subtle and challenging historical issue of cutting things in half. The host shows you how appliances work on the inside, using power saws instead of instruction manuals. It may have nothing to do with history, but it’s kind of fun, as long as they stay away from making episodes on ‘nuclear reactors’ or ‘male reproductive organs’.
At least some of History’s other shows have better claims to historicity. Pawn Stars and American Pickers, for example, are essentially more adventurous versions of Antiques Roadshow. Now, I know what you’re thinking: how could Antiques Roadshow possibly be made any more exciting?
That would be one way.
Pawn Stars follows a high-end Las Vegas pawnshop that specializes in vintage antiques and historical relics. It’s not at all like the other kind of pawnshop, which specializes in giving detectives case-cracking leads.
American Pickers, on the other hand, follows two antiques dealers who travel the countryside buying valuable scrap that reclusive old men have hoarded since the McKinley administration. Some of these hermits make a few hundred bucks selling their old signs and rusty motorcycles to the pickers, who clean it all up for resale; others suddenly become defensive of their forgotten junk and decline to trade, insisting that they’re going to do something with it beyond letting it sit there another forty years. (They won’t.)
"Well, I dunno, see, the Guggenheim was gonna pay me a couple million for this found art exhibit I'm developing..."
The History Channel also seems obsessed with the future — or rather, the end of it. They have no fewer than four programs dedicated to the apocalypse. Life After People and Mega Disasters approach apocalyptic scenarios from a scientific, “what if?” perspective, while Armageddon and The Nostradamus Effect give credence to the prophecies of ancient peoples, who supposedly could foresee our demise, despite being completely surprised by their own.
Oops. Didn't mark that on your fancy Mayan calendar, did you?
But perhaps the most disturbing development on the History Channel is that even their history shows are being invaded by ample amounts of “WTF?!”. In April they debuted “America: The Story of Us,” a miniseries that uses live actors and CGI to recreate everything from starving Jamestown settlers to Henry Ford overseeing his factory.
The odd thing about this show is that the usual tweed-jacket professors have been replaced by a random selection of famous people with no history credentials whatsoever. So, if you’ve ever wanted to hear Melissa Etheridge’s opinions on Westward expansion, or fashion guru Tim Gunn’s take on the industrial revolution, you’re in for a treat! You’ll even get a rare opportunity to hear Sean Hannity talk about how much he loves America.
"But really, the thing I love most about American history is that my viewers don't know anything about it."
In producing this star-studded patriotic tribute, the History Channel did hit upon one idea that is uniquely American: the assumption that fame is an acceptable substitute for expertise.
Despite these questionable choices of programming, I still love the History Channel, and I will continue to watch Modern Marvels marathons to the point of neglecting sleep and personal hygiene. The problem is the slippery slope towards the utterly ridiculous. A line has to be drawn somewhere, or eventually you’ll see the History Channel airing cooking shows, ultimate fighting matches, and Hannah Montana specials in the same afternoon, under the blanket principle that everything in existence will become history sooner or later.
If it ever comes to this, I will shoot my television.