One of the questions people ask me when they find out what sort of thing I do for a living is whether I watch the History Channel. They’re usually a little surprised when I tell them that I don’t watch it much at all. Part of it’s due to the fact that I just don’t watch as much TV as I used to, but another part of it’s due to the fact that the network itself has changed.
In fact, I found it extremely ironic that the network dropped the “channel” from its name last March and changed its handle to “History.” Sticking to the “channel” part would have been more appropriate. So many of the more heavily-publicized shows have nothing to do with the study of things that happened in the past. Instead, they’re about trivial things that are currently happening, things that aren’t happening, or things that may never happen.
Of course, every network wants more viewers, and apparently the change in approach is working. And History isn’t the only network that leaves itself quite a bit of wiggle room in its programming. (One thing you won’t be doing while watching the Learning Channel is learning, unless you want to learn about catering and interior design.)
Still, history can claim a good deal more public interest than most academic disciplines. Commercial history books routinely make the bestseller lists, and thousands of people patronize historical sites. You’d think there would be enough public interest in history to keep the network supplied with viewers. And when History does generate its own original, history-oriented programming, it’s quality stuff. They clearly know how to do it well; they just don’t do it often.
I’m not saying that History has some kind of public obligation to show educational, history-driven programing to the exclusion of everything else. They’re in the entertainment business. In that business you respond to what people want, and what we seem to want more than history is the same sort of thing we can get elsewhere.