What Happened to the History Channel?
A while back I wrote about the cable channel Syfy as an example of a network that suffered due to what is dubbed “channel drift” or “network decay”. But they are far from the only network to go through such a realignment. In fact sometimes alienating your core audience they once appealed to has paid off in big ways for a channel’s financial outlook. Perhaps the clearest case of this comes in the form of the History Channel. Founded in 1995, the History Channel was created as part of the A&E Television Network group in response to the popularity historical based programming on the main A&E network like Biography and Mysteries of the Bible. Thanks to the acquisition of documentaries and video libraries, like the ones at Hearst Entertainment, during A&E’s inception they had plenty of history-based content ready to go when the History Channel launched.
The popularity of the channel during its early years was nothing short of solid and consistent. They knew their core audience and kept them happy. They leaned heavily into military history, because if history buffs love one thing it is combat. Their penchant for showing World War II programming even earned the network the playful nickname “The Hitler Channel”. While most of what the network showed were documentaries they had acquired they did produce some of their own original programming including the hit Modern Marvels. This show explored the history, culture, and engineering prowess that went into making things many of us take for granted.
Overall the History Channel found that perfect balance of educational and entertaining that proves elusive to so many. Shows like Ancient Mysteries, their specials about Nostradamus and programs concerning haunted historical sites combined information with bit of fun surrounding the fun lurid nature surrounding these topics. A particular favorite show of mine personally was Mail Call a show where people wrote in questions about military history which were answered by the great character actor and Marine veteran R Lee Ermey. No matter the success of what they were showing History Channel and their parent company were not immune to the coming change in the medium as a whole with the advent of reality television.
As a change in television became inevitable, A&E came to the conclusion that History Channel, like their other networks would have to get with the times. Initially the hired executive Dan Davids to spearhead this, he was someone who had been their since the start but seemed to have some fresh ideas of where to take things. Unfortunately his vision to the channel’s future never came to pass as the powers-that-be changed their mind and ultimately placed Nancy Dubuc as the President of the History Channel. Unlike Davids she had no preexisting ties to the network, instead her previous job was as VP of Nonfiction Programming at A&E. This was definitely a statement hire as she would spearhead turning the History Channel into something wholly unrecognizable.
The first major decision Dubuc made was to bring onboard the producer behind Discovery Channel’s smash hit Most Dangerous Catch to develop a new series for History. The basis for this series would be an episode of Modern Marvels about truckers operating on the dangerous roads of the Canadian Northwest Territory. This was turned into a full-fledged show about the truckers of the early 1900’s known as the Ice Road Truckers.…..wait it was not in the early 1900’s but actually about a modern job with real modern people and was a reality show with not much of anything to do with history. With a channel built on historical-based programming you would figure a show like this would be a bomb. Perhaps it was with the core History Channel audience who was looking for documentaries about the Normandy Invasion or the Battle of Hastings but, over 3 million people other people tuned in making it the highest rated screening in the channel’s history. At the end of the day the History Channel is a business and viewers means dollars regardless of how they come.
The success of Ice Road Truckers opened the History Channel to other reality shows which countered the channel’s initial mission with the likes of Axe Men, American Pickers and Pawn Stars. These are the kind of basic trashy shows that could be on any cable channel during this era from Bravo to Discovery Channel. Around this time the network received a new slogan of “history made everyday” to excuse this blatant channel drift. While History Channel loyalists may have had their applecart upset, casual audiences tuned in in droves garnering the channel the second highest ratings among all cable channels.
While cheap and dumb reality reality shows may have been the catalyst for History’s change it was another brand of TV altogether that would once and for all destroy any shred of a reputation of being a legitimate source of edutainment TV. Over the years History Channel has presented shows and specials presenting the idea that humans at some point in history had had contact with extraterrestrial beings. But it was approached in a professional manner and examined the works of people like Erich von Daniken from a more scholarly approach. Enter Ancient Aliens a series looking to ride the popularity of paranormal-based shows that were booming at the time and they found the goofiest presenters possible who had no problem presenting fiction as fact and making wild speculations about extraterrestrial subjects for the purpose of pure wacky entertainment. In particular host Giorgio Tsoukalos has become internet-famous for his ability to leap to the explanation of ALIENS. The fact that History Channel had no shortage of Ancient Aliens episodes and related programs they can show it nonstop throughout the programming schedule. While actual historians and history buffs have derided the show, it brings in the viewers which wins at the end of the day no matter how it stains a channel’s reputation.
At times the powers-that-be seem to remember “oh yeah, we are supposed to be showing history based programming. Hence the name”. To this end they have produced a number of sloppily-produced documentaries and dramatic shows that happen to be period pieces to fit the mold. They saw the Game of Thrones audience and wanted their own slice of the pie so they produced Vikings to cash-in. While it is a show based on fictional people, it is very historically accurate and is well-deserving of the acclaim it received. But not all of their dramas have been this well-received and have even stirred scandal. In 2011 they greenlit the mini-series The Kennedys meant to be a grand prestige project with an all-star cast but…there was no attempt to hide that this series focused on drama over the facts to the Nth degree and whereas most other projects of this ilk could get away with it the fact that the Kennedys was set to air on the HISTORY Channel they could not and it was shuffled off to another network.
This need to twist facts from the past for dramatic gain even applies to their documentaries as well apparently. In 2017, they aired Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. In this special they parade out a photograph from the National Archives which they claim shows the famed aviator and her navigator alive on the Marshall Islands in 1944 a full seven years after her mysterious disappearance. Such a claim was bound to draw skepticism, but the skepticism here was amplified when the day after the Lost Evidence aired, the National Archives themselves disputed the network’s claims about the photograph. The stake through the heart of this special came from Japanese historian Kota Yamano who utilizing the advanced technology of….Google found out in about 30 minutes the photo was actually from a 1935 Japanese travel book about the South Seas. While the History Channel has since backtracked and disavowed the production they did indeed air it and apparently did not see fit to hire a fact-checker to look beyond the supposedly great evidence of “hey, that kinda looks like Amelia Earhart and her friend in that old picture”.
For a channel called the History Channel, there is really not a whole lot of history to be found and has not been for a good number of years. What was once the channel one would tune into to catch a special on the construction of the Great Wall of China is now the place to go for the US version of Top Gear. It has devolved into showing the same kind of dumb shows that all of the other former edutainment channels now show. Those dedicated viewers who once kept the TV tuned onto History for hours on end have abandoned it, but in their place millions of casual viewers who do not have any real passion for history took their place. They took a huge risk in the channel drift spearheaded by Nancy Dubuc in 2006 and, financially anyways, it has definitely paid off for them in a way it rarely does. While the former core audience now alienated can be upset all they want at what the once great channel has become, in this day and age of streaming you can easily access the actual history-based programming History once showed from a variety of different sources including YouTube or if you want to stick with the cable TV route, the Smithsonian Channel. Given the struggle every cable network in the era has the fact that the History Channel has found success, even if it means selling their soul, should count as a measure of success.