Rick Moran

Of Ax Men and Astro Babes: The Decline of the History Channel, Part 2

Posted on January 9 2010 12:00 pm
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Read Part 1 of this essay here

But it is the historical documentary that has drawn us to History over the years and the general excellence of these all too infrequent programs causes the buff to ask why more of this kind of intelligent, high quality fare can’t be produced. For instance, the recentWorld War II in HD transcended its documentary format and became history itself. Years in the making, the film makers lovingly crafted 10 hours of gripping, and entertaining full color home movies, archived military footage, and period stills from thousands of submissions into a not to be forgotten mix of pride, patriotism, and pathos – all in glorious HD.

It is unrealistic to expect such excellence on a nightly or even weekly basis. But History has shown in the past that the long form documentary not only makes for compelling TV but also is able to gather an audience. Film maker Ken Burns has been quite successful in weaving stories and pictures into a seamless tapestry that is both achingly beautiful and a treat for the mind.

Even the shorter series-type documentaries like Patton 360 , which features jaw dropping 3-D views of the general’s battlefield, as well as the less serious, but still interesting Cities of the Underworld give nuance and context to previously hidden history.

In the end, it’s all about what draws the largest audience. History is not public TV and the consortium that owns the network are not in the charity business. Still, as this big write up in the Los Angeles Times on the network reveals, the corporation must walk a fine line in their programming between programming for profit and giving their core viewership what they crave.

History’s 41 year old president Nancy Duboc may have found a way to thread the needle:

    Dubuc hopes to banish any questions about the network’s commitment to serious fare in April, when History makes its biggest and most expensive play yet: a 12-part series that will tackle the history of the United States from Jamestown to present day.
    “America: The Story of Us” is being produced by Jane Root, a veteran British television executive who knows how to do epic television: She oversaw the launch of Discovery Channel’s “Planet Earth” when she ran that network. History is casting the project, inspired by the sense of momentousness that followed President Obama’s election, as the first comprehensive television history of the country since Alistair Cooke’s 1972 series “America: A Personal History of the United States.”

Cooke’s love letter to his British cousins about America is considered one of the finest documentaries ever made – a grand, sweeping paean to this country and her people. What can we expect from History’s ambitious effort to tell America’s story?

The recent History program The People Speak, based on far left professor Howard Zinn’s execrable one volume People’s History of the United States portrayed America in a most unflattering light. It highlighted our sins, condemned the people as racist, sexist homophobes, and glorified some fairly unsavory characters.

Given the fact that this project was greenlighted by Duboc, I am not very confident that America: The Story of Us will rise above the kind of revisionist history popular on the left and give our whole, remarkable narrative the treatment it deserves.

Regardless of how that program plays out, the network still features enough quality historical programming to make it a worthwhile stop several times a week. Perhaps in the future, a television network devoted exclusively to the kind of historical programming many of us would love to see will come into existence. With a constantly fragmenting audience on cable and satellite TV, that possibility may become reality sooner than we think.

But for now, we’ll have to settle for History and its uneven mix of the serious, the sublime, and the silly.

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