TV Land: The history of The History Channel

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It’s March now, which means two things — an excuse (like I need one) to eat copious amounts of pie on the 14th and the beginning of Women’s History Month. I don’t know what it is about the month of March that caters to the particular character of females other than the fact that they have both have “m’s” in them. But since I already have written on the state of women in television, it’s time to turn to my favorite subject other than Anthropodermic Bibliopegy — that of history.

The past can oftentimes be mightily confusing. Too many dead people. Too many powdered wigs. Too many things that go unexplained. In 2008, one of these monumental events occurred that remains mysterious to this very day. Out of nowhere, The History Channel as I had known it vanished before my eyes. One day, I was watching an Abraham Lincoln special, eating dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. The next day, everything changed. No more Lincoln. No more Dino Nuggets (just indigestion). No more history.

What happened? The History Channel used to be a place of wonder and intrigue. And by wonder and intrigue, I mean Hitler and WWII. In the late ’90s, if there was one place to get your Hitler binge on, it was The History Channel. His dog’s name? Blondi. His weird relationship with his sister? Addressed. His noted flatulence problem? Well, The History Channel left that one unanswered. I assume because the records don’t exist. Unlike our current customs, it was uncouth in the 1940s to detail the bombast of one’s bum. You had to preserve that energy for the war effort.

And yet, unlike the subjects of the current programs The History Channel airs, Hitler was a historical figure (though it’s an unfortunate fact). He may not have died in a theater as Quentin Tarantino would have liked, and the actual “history” on The History Channel might’ve been questionable, but at least historical topics used to be discussed.

Bruce Mitchell, on the other hand, is not an historical character (yet). He hunts alligators, he wears denim overalls and he’s on one of The History Channel’s most popular reality shows — “Swamp People.” Sure, these traits make him eligible to be my future husband, but there’s nothing remotely historical about him other than his American flag bandanna.

His gator-grabbin’ charm must be working, though, because last Thursday, “Swamp People” came in second place in cable ratings, right behind “Jersey Shore.” Around 4.5 million viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 tuned in to see Bruce snatch gators in a methane-infused swamp deemed the “Stinky Bayou.” Delicious. This seems to be what viewers want, because the popularity of “Swamp People” is steadily rising along with fellow guys-doing-strange-jobs programming like “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars.”

The decay of The History Channel doesn’t stop with these gems. In 2008, the network officially removed the “Channel” and article “The” from their name. They should’ve just dropped the “History” part altogether. Because, in the late 2000s, the channel began airing shows like “Nostradamus” and “UFO Files” centered around doomsday scenarios, conspiracy theories and speculations on alien invasions — all subjects of questionable scholarship.

Watch “Ancient Aliens” for proof. Or for lack of proof, that is. During the four seasons “Ancient Aliens” has been on, they have featured ancient astronaut theorists who have proposed that everything and everyone, from the Founding Fathers to Nazi Germany, can be linked to alien contact. Well, they mention Hitler, so I guess it’s historical?

Explanations for The History Channel’s decline vary. Some cop it up to ratings. Old-school documentaries just aren’t what the kids are looking for. People love alligators and pawn stores. Some trace this degeneration to the Smithsonian Institute, who used to provide networks like The History Channel with historical material. However, in 2006, the Smithsonian signed an exclusive contract with Showtime, leaving The History Channel out. However, the mystery of The History Channel’s sudden shift still remains. Was it ratings? The Smithsonian contract? Personally, I think it’s aliens.

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  • Grizzley ’67

    It is all part of the dumbing down of cable TV and it has happened to TLC, BRAVO, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and others. JFK’s Federal Communication Commissioner Newton Minnow called television a “Vast Wasteland” back when I was at Berkeley, and we only had six or seven channels. Cable TV held out some  promise in its early days, but now is reverting to the lowest denominator. Minnow is still right.