Tag Archives: The History Channel

The History Channel wants your soul

Steven Anderson is pastor of a small independent church in Arizona.  He’s achieved a kind of online celebrity for his advocacy of proper posture while urinating, his explanation of first-century Middle Eastern pants-wearing, and his desire that President Obama would die of brain cancer.

Now Anderson has taken up one of my own pet peeves, the lack of history-related programming on The History Channel.  I’d assumed it was just a ratings thing, but evidently there is a far more sinister explanation.

They’re brainwashing us.  And Ted Turner, a noted minion of Satan, is somehow mixed up in it.

So I’ve started watching the first season of Ax Men backwards, and sure enough, I distinctly heard a voice telling me to read Origin of Species and then go stomp a puppy to death.

I’ve got a request for Rev. Anderson, on behalf of the rest of us Baptists: Could you either find another denomination or stop posting your sermons to YouTube?  Thanks.

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They’re vérité documentaries, you Philistine

The New York Times interviewed Nancy Dubuc, president and general manger of the History Channel, for a piece on their new “America” mini-series.  The conversation turned to the torrent of non-historical programming that has inundated the network.  Here’s an excerpt:

“The History channel under Ms. Dubuc has expanded what qualifies for its programming lineup, incorporating popular series like ‘Pawn Stars’ and ‘Ice Road Truckers.’ Ms. Dubuc, apologizing for being ‘testy,’ dismissed criticisms that the new shows take History away from its core mission, saying they aren’t reality shows but ‘vérité documentaries on people doing history today.'”

Oh, vérité documentaries on people doing history today.  Now I get it.

That reminds me, there’s a penetrating exposé on age disparities in American relationships that I need to TiVo.

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Talking heads needed–apply within

Despite being buried in work, I managed to catch part of The History Channel’s new mini-series.  “America: The Story of Us” is a panorama of four centuries of the nation’s past, the first time in decades that such a project has been undertaken for television.

It’s a very worthy and ambitious effort, and I’m glad to see the network tackling something like this.  As I’ve said before, The History Channel can turn out some pretty good original programming when they tear themselves away from aliens, secret societies, and lumberjacks.

One thing that puzzled me, though, was the conspicuous absence of historians among the on-air commentators.  For the segment on the origins of the Revolution, the talking heads included Tom Brokaw, Brian Jennings, Colin Powell, Michael Bloomberg, and another fellow identified as a military expert and ex-Navy SEAL.  I’m not referring to the narration, mind you, but to the snippets of unscripted commentary interspersed throughout the program, which usually consists of excerpts of interviews with experts in the subject matter.

I’m sure all these guys are very good at what they do.  In fact, I try to make it a habit not to offend news anchors, former Secretaries of State, mayors, or Navy SEALs—especially the latter.  (One should never offend persons who can open one’s throat with a KA-BAR knife, or who can plant explosive charges near one’s sleeping quarters, if one can help it.)

Still, I can’t imagine why you’d hire a TV news anchor to provide insight during a documentary on early American history.  None of these off-the-cuff remarks cast any real light on the material.  They were the sort of fluffy, vague, sentimental filler that my students tack onto their essay exams when they’ve run out of anything meaningful to say.  Every single interview segment that I saw could have been left on the cutting room floor with no loss whatsoever.

It seemed for all the world like one of those pop culture shows which feature snippets of comedians and D-list celebs commenting on old music videos or offbeat news stories.  They’re on the show because they’re recognizable and because they have the gift of gab, not because they’re bringing any expertise to the table.  Think “I Love the ’80’s” with a different set of eighties.

I hope the series succeeds.  It’s got serious potential, and it’s the kind of large-scale, meaty project that a lot of history buffs would love to see the network do more often.  It seems to me, though, that this approach to on-air talent is a misfire.

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Remind me again which people are speaking

The History Channel recently aired The People Speak, a documentary based on the work of Howard Zinn.  There are many people who would condemn Zinn’s writing for purely ideological reasons, and for that Zinn has no one to blame but himself, since he has worked diligently to keep his scholarship and his activism closely intertwined. 

I think history should inform social and political activity, since it provides the context necessary to understand the way society operates.  However, if you’ve already diagnosed mankind’s ills and devised a cure, as Zinn seems to have done to his satisfaction, then conducting some historical investigation into the subject seems a little beside the point.  What’s the point of asking the questions if you’ve already decided the answers? 

His supporters argue that he gives a voice to the marginalized people left out of traditional history books.  To that I’d ask where these supporters have been for the past few decades.  By the time Zinn published his popular survey of American history in 1980, many scholars had already been engaged in “bottom-up” studies of the past for some time, and with a good deal more diligence and sophistication than is evident in Zinn’s own work.  If his book presented any substantially new information, I’m not yet aware of it, though if some reader out there could correct me on this I’ll gladly make a public note of it.

The strange thing about this film project is that for a movie devoted to the forgotten and marginalized, there seem to be quite a few historical notables represented.

Matt Damon, one of the actors involved, is quoted in some of the online promotional material: “Change doesn’t come from the top, but rather from the bottom.…Without everyday citizens pushing to make a difference, there would be no America.”  What everyday citizen who struggled to initiate change from the bottom does Matt Damon portray in the film?  Congressman/governor/ambassador/cabinet member/party leader/chief executive/planter Thomas Jefferson.  I don’t believe Mr. Damon appreciates the irony here.

By the way, I know Matt Damon is a big Zinn fan, but is he really the most appropriate choice to read the Declaration of Independence?  (Remember this cinematic gem?)

Of course, every thirty minutes The History Channel spends airing this is thirty minutes they can’t spend on this sort of thing, so let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.

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Hey, speaking of the History Channel

…did anybody watch that documentary on facial castings of historical figures that aired a couple of nights ago?  If you didn’t, it’s running again in early November.

If you didn’t catch it, they took life masks and death masks of notable individuals, scanned them into a computer, and added color and other enhancements to create three-dimensional representations of what these guys actually looked like.  The idea is that what you end up with is as accurate as a facial cast, but you can move it around and  manipulate it.  You can make Lincoln smile and blink, you can take out Washington’s dentures to see the natural shape of his jaw, and so on. 

George Washington, from the Laurence Hutton Collection, Princeton University, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Manuscripts Division

It was morbidly fascinating, and parts of it were instructive.  (Who knew Washington’s mouth was so flabby without his false teeth in there?)  It’s hard to deny the captivating power of facial casts, and the insight they give us into a person’s appearance that transcends anything you can get from a painting or sculpture.

I got a little irritated, though, at all the overselling of results.  Now, for the first time, we can see Washington as Martha saw him!  Here, for the first time ever, is the real face of Lincoln! 

Scientists, doctors, and technicians who dabble in history have this tendency to overstate the implications of their work.  I don’t deny that the hard sciences sometimes offer historians a certainty that’s very appealing.  The only catch is that what they can tell us is often so very limited.  They can reconstruct Washington’s appearance, but not his world.  They can show us Lincoln’s face, but not what was going on behind it.  No high-end scanner or empirical test is going to answer these types of questions, the questions that demand the kind of research and analysis that historians have been doing for a long, long time.

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The History, Reality Show, UFO, Monster, and Conspiracy Channel

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.

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