Requiem For The History Channel: A Nerd's Rant

Ancient Aliens? Dan Brown? 18th Century Carrie Bradshaws? I never thought I'd say, let alone write this, but: Give me Adolf Hitler - please.

In the latest Vanity Fair, James Wolcott unleashes the sort of despairing tirade that intellectuals have been haplessly aiming at our culture's demise since the dawn of Survivor. "The influence of Reality TV has been insidious, pervasive. It has ruined television, and by ruining television it has ruined America," he proclaims dramatically, and enters into the sort of acid-tongued dismissal of televised whoredom that's become an armchair sport of its own in the past decade. America's obit also contains the lines "it is also true that the mega-dosage of reality programming has lowered the lowest common denominator to pre-literacy," and "Reality TV wages class warfare and promotes proletarian exploitation."

But fruitless as such rhetoric may seem in our benighted times (and, I'm sorry, but Super Nanny is an excellent and educational show that has taught me how incredibly easy raising other peoples' kids is) there was one salient point I found to be tragically apt. Quoth he,

Reality TV has annihilated the classic documentary. When was the last time you saw a prime-time documentary devoted to a serious subject worthy of Edward R. Murrow's smoke rings? Since never, that's when. They're extinct, relics of the prehistoric past, back when television pretended to espouse civic ideals. Murrow and his disciples have been supplanted by Jeff Probst, the grinny host of CBS's Survivor, framed by torchlight in some godforsaken place and addressing an assembly of coconuts.

Well, anyone who's spent much time on Netflix knows that reports of the documentary's death have been exaggerated, but let's talk about the greatest casualty of the last decade: The History Channel. Yes, I know: before it was all-Hitler, all the time. If you were lucky, you got a dash of Churchill, or maybe a few re-enactors running onto a battle field. Historians talked. Voiceovers intoned. Hitler's final days approached inexorably, while an actor who didn't really resembled him gesticulated wildly. Sometimes we saw the holy land or a weathered piece of parchment. You know, the History Channel!

Now, the network is beyond parody. The viewing public is, the programmers seem to feel, unwilling to watch anything that doesn't involve Da Vinci-Code-style speculation, cryptic pseudo-historians, and, whenever possible, the paranormal. Three times in the past week I tried to find a comforting educational program. I was presented with Ancients Behaving Badly, something about Lord of the Rings involving what looked like a reenactment of the movies, and Ancient Aliens, respectively. Take a smattering of shows from the current schedule: Nostradamus Effect: Satan's Army; MysteryQuest: The Lost City of Atlantis; Fort Knox: Secrets Revealed and UFO Hunters: The Silencers. I never thought I'd be so glad to run across Civil War Journal: Stonewall Jackson.

I don't want "mysteries" unless they're staid Mysteries of the Bible, thanks very much. I don't want buried treasure. I don't need the founding fathers to have hidden a treasure map in the Constitution because, call me a nerd, but the Constitution is interesting sans Nic Cage. Templars don't need to be skulking around for Church history to have a bearing on the development of England. And, oh yeah, aliens have nothing to do with history. To put this in terms the New History Channel will find more engaging: It's like Indiana Jones. The ones based on real history (yes, I'm talking about the holy grail and the arc of the covenant; work with me) are better. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was idiotic. (I'd say these aren't actually suggestions, but programs already exist pertaining to each of the films. The Crystal Skulls are ancient alien artifacts - maybe.)

Old programming has been shunted onto History International, where you can still get a comforting fix of Medieval weapons and Nuremberg (although the homepage gamely advertises Cults: Dangerous Devotion, Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History and the perfectly dignified show that for some reason has been christened The Naked Archaeologist.) It's not the same. It knows it's second-rate, that the powers that be don't think it can pull in the youngsters. It's not sexy. The History Channel was always for the regular joe; it wasn't for academics or historians. But it assumed people like history, because we're living it, and it's interesting, and it has a bearing on who we are today. Now, we're controlling the programming instead. Maybe it does have to do with reality TV, or the general dumbing-down of the culture. Personally, I blame Dan Brown (although not in a grand-conspiracy way.) All I know is, these half-facts and bits of speculation and scholars' cautious assertions quickly cut with a more dramatic reenactment are, well, boring. And while I'm more than happy to don a gratuitous explorer's fedora and say cryptic things about the role of ancient dolls any time the History Channel wants me to, that's not really the kind of history we need to make. Hmph.

I'm a Culture Critic … Get Me Out of Here! [Vanity Fair]