Rick Moran

Of Ax Men and Astro Babes: The Decline of the History Channel, Part 1

Posted on January 8 2010 4:30 pm
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The network formerly known as The History Channel has come a long way from its start up back in 1995. At that time, there were questions about how big an audience there would be for a network that dealt with a subject most Americans find irrelevant or boring.

They needn’t have worried. Now dubbed simply History, the Arts and Entertainment network offshoot regularly outperforms its flagship channel and is poised to improve upon its top ten ranking in the all important 25-54 age group this year with a mix of reality TV, first class documentaries, and audience grabbing psuedo-history programming on everything from UFO’s to the coming “Apocalypse” in 2012.

But the question in my mind, and one that should concern those of us who love history and revere the past, is how far afield the network can wander from its roots and still hold its base audience of history nuts?

Indeed, the channel that was once known as “The Hitler Network” because of its seemingly endless supply of World War II documentaries, now features several “working class hero” shows that don’t offer much in the way of history but are cheap to produce and garner large audience shares due to the personality driven story lines. Ax Men, a series that follows a group of loggers through a season of thrills, spills, and personality conflicts, is entering its third year of production, and along with the gritty reality hit Ice Road Truckers shows that History is perfectly willing to eschew the traditional, more linear and academic documentary format to give the audience what it wants; real- life danger and edgier programming.

The network’s newest reality hit, a takeoff on the PBS series Antiques Roadshow called Pawn Stars, at least has a tangential connection to “history” in that the Las Vegas pawn shop featured on the show takes in an eclectic mix of weird and wonderful objects that, at times, have surprising antecedents. But the drama comes from the conflicts between family members, including an overbearing father who runs the shop.

Couple these reality shows with the growing number of offerings dealing with pseudo-science and pure fantasy, and history buffs might wonder where their network has gone. UFO’s, Nostradamus, and especially the wacky notion that the world is going to end in 2012 might improve ratings, but you can get similar fare on the SyFy Channel. Looking for monsters, tracking the movements of Aliens, and the seriousness with which the predicted 2012 Apocalypse is examined make History unwatchable many nights. Even Hitler would be an improvement to speculation about the Yeti.

This is not to say there aren’t flashes of excellent programming for the history connoisseur. Two general interest science programs almost make up for the nonsense offered during the rest of the week. The Universe, with its high end production values and mix of commentary by enthusiastic astronomers augmented by beautiful animation sequences, is can’t miss TV even if astronomy isn’t your cup of tea.

The series features many younger scientists – including some very attractive female astronomers I’ve dubbed “Astro Babes” – who not only offer clear, easy to understand explanations for the enormously complex concepts being examined, but seem to connect well with the audience on their level. Treating the viewers like adults is a welcome change from some other science fare broadcast elsewhere.

Similar care is taken in producing How the Earth Was Made. The show is unique in that it treats each subject – how the Rockies were formed, or plate tectonics, for example – as a detective story. Tracing the history of discovery, the series shows how science is done; building on knowledge gleaned from the past and combined with information learned using the latest gee-whiz gadgetry to arrive at a satisfying answer. Before each commercial break, the narrator summarizes what has been learned so far, giving the viewer the opportunity to share in how the answers were puzzled out. It is a show that is visually stunning and intellectually satisfying – a rare combination indeed.

See the Continuation of this essay tomorrow.

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