Tag Archives: The History Channel

It’s getting harder and harder

…to distinguish between satirical news stories about The History Channel and actual news stories about The History Channel.

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I showed up late to the feud

I didn’t watch The History Channel‘s Hatfields & McCoys miniseries when it premiered a few months ago, mostly because the notion of a fictionalized account of the Hatfield-McCoy feud from The History Channel filled me with the same foreboding I had when I found out that the Rock was going to star in a remake of Walking Tall.  But when an encore presentation aired last week, I ended up watching the whole thing, and it’s actually not half bad.

In terms of pure entertainment, Part Two is by far the best segment, and the scene in which the Hatfields execute three of Randolph McCoy’s sons packs quite a wallop.  (IRL this incident took place on August 9. 1882.)  To me, the standout performances are Kevin Costner’s “Devil” Anse Hatfield, Tom Berenger’s Jim Vance (Tom Berenger’s good in everything), Powers Boothe’s Wall Hatfield (ditto), Jena Malone’s Nancy McCoy, Lindsay Pulsipher’s Roseanna McCoy, and Noel Fisher’s Ellison Mounts.

Modern scholarship indicates that the changes taking place in postwar Appalachia led to the resentments that erupted in the feud.  The problem wasn’t so much the existence a traditional and primitive society untouched by modernization, but rather the reverse.  My biggest fear—and the main reason I steered clear of the miniseries when it premiered—was that we’d get six hours of the same old superficial, simplistic, and stereotypical depictions of nineteenth-century mountaineers as backward, violent, lawless, clannish, and ignorant.  Indeed, the feud itself helped generate and perpetuate these very notions.  For the most part, though, I was pretty pleasantly surprised.  The third part actually touches on the media’s role in popularizing the stereotype of a violent mountain culture in a scene featuring Bill Paxton’s Randolph McCoy.  While the embittered patriarch holds a sort of press conference at a relative’s home, a New York reporter and a photographer urge him to hold a bystander’s firearm while posing for the camera.

A few minor criticisms: I know it’s cheaper to film in Romania, but Eastern European mountains aren’t quite the same as Eastern Kentucky ones, so the scenic shots undermined the illusion a little.  Seeing men’s ponytails in a late nineteenth-century setting was also a little odd.  Finally, Appalachian accents continue to be hit-or-miss when it comes to Hollywood; some actors just can’t swing it.

Despite all the snark I’ve directed against The History Channel in the past, I’ll give them props for Hatfields & McCoys.  Ultimately, what impressed me the most about the miniseries was its success in depicting the feud as a wrenching ordeal in which flesh-and-blood human beings got caught up in extraordinary, terrible circumstances.  There’s something to be said for that.  Over the years, cartoons, TV shows, and other media have used the feud scenario as a comic, almost buffoonish affair, but whatever else it was, the Hatfield-McCoy conflict was a tragedy involving real people, and the filmmakers didn’t lose sight of that.  One could certainly do worse.

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Peddling crap and frivolity pays big dividends for History Channel

You know that old saying about how nobody ever went broke by underestimating the public’s intelligence?

Last year, the History channel had a growth spurt, gaining hundreds of thousands of viewers while most of its competitors struggled to grow at all. This year, even more remarkably, the channel did it again.

That makes the network’s executives a subject of both envy and sympathy in the television business. They swiftly took History from top 20 status on cable to top five, a feat rarely if ever accomplished — and now they have to keep it there.…

Its biggest show for the last two years has been “Pawn Stars,” about a family that buys and sells watches, necklaces and artifacts. Just last week, History scheduled a spinoff, “Cajun Pawn Stars.” But the channel is also considering shows that may seem suited for TNT or even ESPN, like a “Hatfields and McCoys” mini-series and a jousting competition. The goal, it seems, is to steal market share from the other big boys.

History has been able to declare its “best year ever” for five years in a row because it took what could be seen as a radical turn away from its brand nearly five years ago.

For that, we can thank Nancy Dubuc, The History Channel‘s general manager.  As you might recall, she’s the same person who had the grapes to refer to shows like Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars as “vérité documentaries on people doing history today.”  There’s a sense in which that’s true, but it’s the same sense in which Uwe Boll is a bold iconoclast on the cutting edge of modern cinema.

“We started to show that History was a great alternative to sports in attracting upscale men,” said [Dubuc's] boss and mentor, Abbe Raven, the chief executive of A + E Networks. As advertising buyers spent more on History, “we took those revenues and invested them in programming to build the future.”

All this time, “upscale men” have been the ones watching shows like Swamp People.  I can see them now, all those upwardly mobile professionals coming home after a long day in their corner offices, a copy of the Wall Street Journal or The New Yorker in hand, sitting back to enjoy a good cigar and a snifter of brandy while watching this:

So what can we look forward to in the future?

Another producer, Craig Piligian, who makes “Top Shot” and “Big Shrimpin’ ” for History, has another show on the way called “Full Metal Jousting,” a production that harks back to the Renaissance, or at least Renaissance fairs. Mr. Piligian said his pitch was as follows: “Guys about 6-foot-2 wearing 180 pounds of armor on them, running at each other on 2,000-pound horses at 35 miles per hour and hitting each other with a pole that doesn’t break.”

“They like that it’s loud, it’s promotable, and it’s different,” he said.

Note to self: Come up with “loud, promotable, and different” idea for TV show, pitch it to The History Channel, bask in riches and glory.

Next year they’re rolling out (I’m not making this up) a mini-series about the Hatfields and the McCoys.  If they can handle this difficult aspect of Appalachian history with the same sophistication and sensitivity so characteristic of Swamp People and Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy, then we’re in for a real treat.

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“A historian and keen observer of human nature”

Here’s one of the differences between Ken Burns and the folks running The History Channel.

Ken Burns turned acclaimed authors like Shelby Foote into TV celebrities.  The History Channel works backward, turning TV celebrities into acclaimed authors.

Lest you think the lead character from Pawn Stars is bereft of wisdom that merits preservation for the ages, heed the promotional copy of his new book’s dust jacket:

Rick isn’t only a businessman; he’s also a historian and keen observer of human nature. For instance, did you know that pimps wear lots of jewelry for a reason? It’s because if they’re arrested, jewelry doesn’t get confiscated like cash does, and ready money will be available for bail. Or that WWII bomber jackets and Zippo lighters can sell for a freakishly high price in Japan? Have you ever heard that the makers of Ormolu clocks, which Rick sells for as much as $15,000 apiece, frequently died before forty thanks to the mercury in the paint?

The late Shelby Foote may have been quite the wordsmith, my friends, but I’ll wager a shiny nickel that he didn’t know why pimps wear so much bling.

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An attempt to be constructive

Over at Interpreting the Civil War, John Rudy argued that some of us history bloggers were too hard on the makers of The History Channel‘s Gettysburg special, and urged us to remember that Civil War specialists and hardcore enthusiasts were not the show’s intended audience.  He raises some good points.

I do, however, want to clarify one matter.  When I criticized the show’s “gritty and modern” style, I was referring to the fact that it made Gettysburg seem like a twentieth- or twenty-first-century battle, not to the fact that it depicted the ugliness of combat.  What I meant was that the cinematography and the restricted focus on small groups of men moving in fairly loose formations seemed more appropriate for a modern war film than a Civil War film. Looking back at my post now, I can see that I didn’t express this very well.

In fact, I think that depicting the ugly side of combat was one of the things the show got right.  I’m all for putting the horrors of war front and center,  Indeed the last museum exhibit that I scripted back when I did that sort of thing was devoted entirely to graphic photos of dead Civil War soldiers.  I just didn’t think the Black Hawk Down-esque “combat photography” style was the best approach for a documentary on the nineteenth century.  It just looked…off, somehow.

While I disagree with some of John’s specific points, his broader point is valid.  Popular documentaries must cast their nets wide when it comes to audience.  This doesn’t lessen the need for scrupulous accuracy—if anything, I think it magnifies it—but it does mean that filmmakers don’t cater exclusively to us history aficionados.

Like all public historians, history filmmakers have a daunting task before them.  As we’ve started working on the historical travel TV segments that I posted about back in April, I’ve learned how difficult even the simple logistics of production can be.  I still stand by my numerous and frequent criticisms of The History Channel, even though they’ve been among my most snark-ridden posts.  But in recognition of the fact that it’s a lot easier for me to lob those shots over a keyboard than it is to actually produce programming, I offer here some suggestions for The History Channel.

You can think historically while thinking broadly at the same time.  One of the biggest turning points in the study of history has been the explosion of brand new fields of studying the past.  Anything is fair game these days—the history of childbearing, the changing relationships between people and the environment, the history of commemoration, the history of food.  You can be as creative in framing your shows as historians are in framing their subject matter.  Indeed, the network has done this in the past, with specials on the history of everything from comic books to sexuality.  I would urge the network to think historically and creatively at the same time.

Don’t be afraid to think big in terms of scope.  Some of the network’s best offerings have been those occasions when they’ve bitten off a bug chunk of history to tackle.  Their miniseries on life in the Third Reich was as fine as some of the best documentary material being produced for television, and the recent miniseries on the American Revolution was also quite good.

You can be historically relevant while still indulging your current programming style.  If we must have reality shows, why not try to make them a little more historical in content?  How about a series chronicling the struggles faced by the staff of some historic house museum, instead of a family-run pawn shop?  Or a series that follows a few reenactors around as they practice their hobby?  Why not chronicle the lives of battlefield park rangers instead of taxidermists?  Are taxidermists really that much more interesting than public historians?

In the name of all that is good and decent, cut the flying saucers loose.  Give up on the aliens, conspiracies, and cryptozoology.  It’s bad enough to be irrelevant; it’s much worse to be counter-productive by providing a platform for outright claptrap.  If I want to watch something that will make my brain cells shrivel up like raisins, I can always flip over to E! or Bravo.

Use the unique tools at your disposal in ways that cater to their unique strengths. Here’s an example.  The History Channel loves its computer generated maps and imagery.  Okay, fine.  How about a show or a one-shot special that looks at historic or well-known places and then uses CG to depict how these places have changed over time?  A televised version of landscape archaeology in cities, around landmarks, or at historic sites would fit the medium to the content, instead of employing bells and whistles just for the sake of doing so.

Choose your talking heads wisely.  The celebrity interview segments in America: The Story of Us added absolutely nothing to that program, besides (I assume) some hefty appearance fees.  In this age of Google and Linkedin, it’s not that hard to find qualified commentators.

Use your ability to draw an audience for the greater good.  The “Save Our History” effort is praiseworthy, and could be expanded beyond the occasional special.  There are more than enough endangered sites out there to make for a regular series.

Of course, I doubt that anyone who’s in a position to re-direct the network is reading this, and I doubt even more that they’d care if they did read it.  In terms of raw numbers, business is evidently booming at The History Channel.  I think the shift in the network’s program indicates how little the folks running it are concerned with the opinions of history buffs.

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Gettysburg goes Black Hawk Down

I see I’m not the only one who was less than impressed with The History Channel’s Gettysburg documentary.  Check out the reactions from Eric Wittenberg and Kevin Levin, and then read the comments at Brooks Simpson’s blog.

I wasn’t really sure what the producers were trying to accomplish here.  The promotional material seemed to indicate that the program would give us some type of insight into the common soldier’s experience of the battle in order to demonstrate that Civil War combat wasn’t a romantic or glorious affair.  That’s not a bad idea for a documentary, and indeed the program did zero in on a few individuals and followed them through the course of some of the action.  But those individuals included high-ranking officers like William Barksdale and Dan Sickles, which effectively turned these sequences into conventional battle narrative.  At the same time, many important aspects of the battle just got skipped over entirely.  The program was therefore neither fish nor fowl—not comprehensive enough to be a good overview of the general flow of the battle as a whole, but not focused enough to provide a good discussion of what was going on among the rank and file.

As a stylistic matter, the gritty, modern war approach to filming the reenacted sequences just didn’t work for me.  With all the handheld shots, dramatic slow-motion, and running through the streets and over terrain hither and yon, I felt like I was watching Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan.  The combination of nineteenth-century gear and modern-day combat camera work was a little too jarring.  Furthermore, it didn’t seem that the high-speed zooming along the pathways of bullets and through the CG maps really added anything to the explanation of what was happening.

As a final note, while I’m no expert in the kind of minute details that make up a good reenacting impression, it appeared to me that an unhealthy amount of farbiness managed to make it in onto the screen.  What was with all the long-haired Confederates?

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The History Channel and the Scott brothers are taking on Gettysburg

Somebody associated with The History Channel has asked me to inform you of an upcoming program which premieres at the end of this month.  Since it’s a show about honest-to-goodness history, I think it deserves your attention:

Gettysburg is a 2-hour HISTORY special that kicks off a week of History programming commemorating the 150’th anniversary of the Civil War.

Executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, this special strips away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War. It presents the pivotal battle of Gettysburg in a new light: as a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience, fought by men with everything on the line. Compelling CGI  and powerful action footage place viewers in the midst of the fighting, delivering both an emotional cinematic experience and an information packed look at the turning points, strategic decisions, technology and little known facts surrounding the greatest engagement ever fought on American soil.

The special begins in the high stakes summer of 1863, as the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia crosses into Pennsylvania. Trailed by the Union’s Army of the Potomac, Lee’s 75,000 strong army heads towards Harrisburg, converging instead near a quiet farm town, Gettysburg.  Known then only as a crossroads where ten roads running in all directions converge like a wagon wheel, this small town would become site of an epic battle between North and South.  For three days, each side fought there for their vision of what America should be.

In collaboration with highly esteemed Civil War historians, HISTORY combed through hundreds of individual accounts of the battle to find the unique voices of struggle, defeat and triumph that tell the larger story of a bitterly conflicted nation.

The Scott brothers are both exceptional filmmakers, and this looks like it’s going to be a high-end production.  Have a peek.

Gettysburg premieres May 30 at 9:00 EST.  It should be well worth watching, so check it out.

They also offered me some t-shirts, notebooks, and messenger bags to either keep or pass along to you guys as reader giveaways, but I did the virtuous thing and said no.  Given all the snark-ridden vitriol I’ve written here about The History Channel, it just didn’t seem right to take their stuff.  I do have some scruples.

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Take the Past in the Present April Fool’s Day Challenge

First of all, I’ve been sick for days with no end in sight.  Prescriptions, confinement to bed, Vitamin C, all to no avail.  Not fun.

Second, in the spirit of the current holiday, here’s a short exercise in discernment.  I’m going to give you three increasingly improbable scenarios, all of them somehow relevant to the sort of thing I usually post here.  Your task is to determine which, if any, of them are April Fool’s Day hoaxes that I just made up out of the recesses of my twisted mind.  I’ll give you the correct answers at the end of the post.

Of course, you could just Google these one at a time, but because I have such trust in my adoring faithful, we’ll do this on the honor system.  Besides, there are no prizes other than the smug satisfaction of a job well done, so it’s not like there’s anything at stake.

Ready?  Here goes!

IMPROBABLE SCENARIO #1: The History Channel will premiere a new series this month devoted to the workings of an Alaskan taxidermy shop.  The promotional copy describes it as a sort of Cake Boss with moose carcasses, in which we can witness “the real process of what it takes to preserve natural history–on a deadline, and always for a demanding client.”

IMPROBABLE SCENARIO #2: Until just a few years ago, a Baltimore museum exhibited what was reportedly Abraham Lincoln’s last bowel movement.  It was recovered from a chamber pot at Ford’s Theater and mounted in a frame, along with an old manuscript attesting to its authenticity.  An analysis of its contents revealed traces of Necco Wafers.

IMPROBABLE SCENARIO #3: Past in the Present—the little history blog that could, which you are now reading with your very eyes—has been picked up by a television station to become an educational/travel series.  A camera will follow your intrepid blogger as he travels to various historic sites and interviews the folks who work there about why these places are significant and what visitors can expect to see.  Filming hopefully starts this summer.

So how many of these astronomically unlikely situations are true, and how many are April Fool’s Day hogwash?  I’ll give you some time to mull this over.

Okay, here are the answers.  Try to contain your excitement.

SCENARIO #1: This one is true, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who’s been watching The History Channel‘s gradual descent into madness.  The show is called Mounted in Alaska, and it premieres in less than a week.

The first time I heard the title, I thought it was about Anchorage cavalry reenactors.  Come to think of it, that would make a pretty good show, too.

SCENARIO #2: Get ready to pick your lower jaw off the floor.  This one is true, too, although the museum in question apparently closed in 2007.  Even the bit about the Necco Wafers is real.  While the artifact undoubtedly existed, Roadside America claims that it wasn’t really Lincoln’s, since Necco Wafers first hit the shelves in 1912.  The manufacturer, however, states that the wafers have been in production since 1847, when Lincoln was in Congress, so maybe it was the genuine article after all.

It would be fun to try to track the provenance of that thing, and even more fun to present the results at a conference.  Any of you researchers out there who’d like to commit career suicide should tackle this one.  Let us know how it goes.

SCENARIO #3: I didn’t make this one up, either.  Today the blogosphere, tomorrow the world.  Fortunately, I’m not the person to blame for all this.

A good friend of mine is a program manager at a TV station owned by the same university where I’m an adjunct.  They do a number of original shows that broadcast throughout northeastern Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky.  For reasons that he’ll probably come to regret later, he decided to pitch the idea of a show similar to the historic site visit reports that I post here from time to time, and his colleagues thought it was a good idea.  We’re planning to do about six episodes, each one built around some similar historical theme or region, where we’ll take viewers on a virtual tour of historically important places.

What’s nifty about all this is that we’re going to try to combine the informative aspects of any history-oriented show with the informal tone and atmosphere of a travel show.  Heritage tourism is really popular, but when travel shows tackle historic sites, they don’t always provide the kind of content that history enthusiasts are after.  We’re going to try to offer history buffs enough meat and potatoes to keep the shows interesting, while following an on-the-road format that will hopefully engage other viewers and motivate them to visit these places for themselves.

Anyway, I’ll provide more information about the show as it develops.  In the meantime, if any readers of the blog have suggestions for places or topics you’d like to see us tackle once we get rolling, feel free to pass them along.  We’ll probably be staying in the southeast for this set of episodes, but if it takes off and we end up doing more, then we might venture farther.

Of course, if I don’t get over this bug, then you can box me up and ship me to those guys in Alaska.  We’ll still do the show, but it’ll be sort of like Weekend at Bernie’s.

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History Channel’s gravitas meter drops another couple of notches

Ladies and gentlemen, your new guide across the highways and byways of American history and culture is Larry the Cable Guy.  No reaction yet from the producers of American Experience over at PBS, but I don’t think they’re quaking in their boots.

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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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