A longer version of the title would be, why the death of the History Channel doesn't mean the death of history, but I appreciate the shock value of the original title above. On the other hand, maybe it doesn't shock you all that much to note that the History Channel, also known as History, and its associated channels in H2 and International History are in fact dead, but that's what we're here to discuss. Not merely how we know they are dead, and why we've been reluctant to admit it on occasion, but also, on a more positive note, how history is nonetheless in good hands going into the future.
This should be easy, although a surprising amount of folks do enjoy what passes for entertainment on the History Channel now. I would wager most of us, who have been with the channel for some time or who remember what it used to be like in its glory days, roll their eyes when the Channel is even mentioned. This is of course a shame, and the gradual death of the Channel represents a fundamental failing on so many levels - the viewership, the eagerness to make money, the lack of imaginative documentaries etc.
What's that you say? 'The History Channel isn't dead Zack, I can watch it right now!'
Oh you - the station may exist, but as for the History Channel, (which in 2008 rebranded itself simply as History, because alright then) it's been pushing up daisies for some time now. Don't believe me? Or maybe you're just here for a melancholy laugh? Well welcome history friends and readers all, to our article, where we look at why the History Channel is DEAD.
When History Channel Meant Hitlery Channel
There was a time in History's lifespan where you couldn't swing a cat without hitting some kind of Adolf Hitler related documentary. The Second World War was, of course, a terribly important event, nobody is disputing that, but according to History, that conflict encapsulated the entirety of human experience. There was a reason why my historically minded friends and I used to call it the Hitlery Channel, rather than the History Channel. We thought we were hilarious, but who's laughing now? Not us.
I think the first alarm bells started to ring when one summer I watched what I believe must have been the last original documentary series the channel ever produced. The Last Days of World War Two it was called. It spanned the last few months of the war, and pretty much shined a light on the terrible nature of warfare in the Pacific theatre in a way that I really hadn't seen before. I really enjoyed it when I first watched it, almost religiously, in the summer of 2008. If I had wanted to, I could have done that exact same thing for the next five years, because I'm not even joking, up to at least 2013, The Last Days of World War Two remained a staple part of the channel's programming, and sometimes they'd even promote it anew, as though it had recently been released. I remember realising this after watching it all the way through the second time in 2009. I happened to be still mindlessly staring at the credits, when I saw the date the whole series was produced...2004.
It was at that point that I came to the conclusion that the History Channel might be just a little bit crap. Yet, even while I noticed this blatant act of laziness, I could excuse it because regulars like The Lost Evidence and The Second World War in Colour were also on the program schedule. 16,17 and 18 year old Zack could really appreciate and get his teeth into these documentaries, and I have to say I was captivated by the History Channel's formula. I loved seeing the dramatisation of the different battles, where available, and I loved feeling important as random experts with crazy hair would talk to us about the war.
I was especially happy to see The First World War in Colour hit the screens. I learned so much from it, I couldn't believe the stories I was hearing, sprinkled with the usual biases as they inevitably were. These years pretty much formed the basis of my knowledge for later opinions on history and, I'm somewhat ashamed to say, the early stages of my podcast. I don't remember ever reading in a book that the Germans were essentially responsible for the First World War - because I saw this story play out on the TV. I remember for the 95th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, the Channel got The Guns of August, which was probably the only history book to film adaption ever made, and I was even more hooked.
Something was undeniably stirred within me as I learned these facts about a war from a century before, and I yearned for more information about these crazy leaders of the different countries, and why they believed war was necessary. I distinctly remember searching out the early part of the documentaries on the first and second world wars, because that was the point where the diplomacy was detailed and the events leading up to the war were presented. I was, I have to emphasise, absolutely captivated - I couldn't get enough. I freakin' loved history, and it was because the History Channel had presented it to me in this accessible, fascinating and entertaining way.
This was my experience with the History Channel, and when Military History began accompanying it, it seemed as though I was set. This was the golden age of the Hitlery Channel, and I was far from the only one to notice - one site asked in 1997, even before the Hitlery Channel really began to outdo itself, "Why is Adolf Hitler such a durable TV star?" It was a good question then, and the answer is the same as the answer given to the more modern question "where have all the documentaries gone?" In the late 1990s and the first decade or so of the 2000s, Adolf Hitler sold well, morbid as that may sound.
The End of Education
What I would give now for a bit of the Hitlery Channel to come back. Heck I'd even settle for those documentaries which blatantly hadn't been updated since the late '90s. Instead, what do we get now? Programs that show you what it would be like to drive a big truck across icy roads. Programs that tell you exactly how little that priceless family heirloom is worth. Programs that show you what it's like to chop down a tree with a load of bearded dullards on a high-protein diet. Programs that show you what catching alligators for one month of the year is truly like. Programs that show you what it's like to live in cold places. Programs that present irrefutable evidence that Aliens did, in fact, build the pyramids. Programs that gave us that iconic meme with that guy who said Aliens and had crazy hair. You get the idea.
The serious and completely justified questions about where the history documentaries have gone and why the Channel hosts such tripe nowadays are as simple as they are galling. History documentaries do not sell, the execs at A&E (History's parent channel) tell us, but this other stuff does. To the objective viewer then, they may ask why I and so many others feel the current state of History is such an affront to their sensibilities.
The reasons in my case are twofold; first off, nostalgia dictates that I want to like History, because it entertained me so much, and its flawed but charming documentaries taught me so much...ish. I want it to be good because these memories and experiences of enjoying the channel made me care about it, and I want it to stay true to its roots. Second, perhaps more obviously - the channel calls itself History, yet airs next to no content even remotely fulfilling this claim. The claim is inherently dangerous as much as it is misleading, which we'll look into more after this handy example...
Imagine landing on a cooking channel like Good Food or the like, only to see people have intensive an food fight, while a host of chefs and other contenders comment on why the food fight means so much to them, and why their quality ingredients can bring something extra special to the table, before they throw the contents of that table at their opponent. The crowd cheers, the audience at home laughs, it sparks a meme or two, the TV execs are delighted and commission it for ten seasons. That, in a nutshell, is what happened to History.
The Problem With "Aliens"
Yet even then, to go back to my second point, the reason why this grinds my gears isn't so much when Axe Men, Pawn Stars or Ice Road Truckers bore me to tears, or that they appear so fundamentally out of place on a channel called History. My real problem is that even despite this drivel, History still tries to present itself as something of an authority.
Here's what I mean. A quick trip to their site, followed by a click on the menu tab Stories, brings us to...no guys, not "stories", but actual historical articles on things that did, in fact, happen. Here, you can find articles that answer questions, such as How Did the US end up with Guam? or one explaining how Davey Crocket was a PR genius. In perhaps one of the greatest examples of unintentional irony I think I have seen all month, one article presented us with the scenario which explained that, back in the old days of TV, before all these old shows were getting revived, TV execs used to just create a load of spin-offs. Spin-offs you say? As in capitalising on a formula that brings in the views and cash by replicating it several times over? Who would do such a thing!? Not History, no no, not at all.
The reason why the availability of apparently legitimate and serious articles on History's website so frustrates me is because the channel, as I said, seems to think it's OK to use these pieces to justify its title and self-appointed status as an authority on the school of history. It seems to consider its channel, or at the very least its website, as some kind of reputable bastion of historical learning. For the sake of contrast, I had a gander at History's actual schedule for the day, available to look at through the very same website. Apparently History has a new show called Counting Cars, along with Mountain Men (Axe Men without axes) and Pawn Stars Australia (regular Pawn Stars but with more polite shop owners). If you can't get enough of these gems, consider Cajun Pawn Stars, which is literally what would happen if History arranged a marriage between Swamp People and regular Pawn Stars. What was that about spin-offs...?
There is little that can be said about History's programming which hasn't been said already, but for the record, I don't care that much that these shows are on here. My dad gets a kick out of American Pickers, which is an even worse version of Antiques Roadshow, and my friend insists that Storage Wars is genuinely interesting. Who am I to judge? My problem and the reason why I care so much about what's going on, is because of the inconsistency. On the one hand, History wants to write articles about events that actually happened, and on the other, they want to blame it all on aliens. No really, the meme does not exaggerate. Ancient Aliens seems to have begun as some kind of inside joke, and then expanded to challenge (or flip the bird at) literally everything we hold to be true in life. Pyramids? Aliens. Jesus Christ's birth? Aliens. What happened to the Mayans? Aliens...also they were somehow right about 2012. Plus, Nostradamus. Lord.
The reason why the inconsistency bothers me isn't because I happen to hate inconsistency, it's because it has the potential to quite literally dumb down the audience. Imagine this; little Jimmy gets home from school and turns on Ancient Aliens, wherein serious looking people (to a kid at least) talk about their crackpot theories as though they are irrefutable facts. Jimmy takes what's happening on board, thinks to himself, "hey, I don't know how Pyramids work, so I guess it must be aliens".
But maybe take Aliens out of the equation for a tick; say Jimmy comes home and watches some conspiracy show about JFK. The crackpots on such programs are held in such blatantly high regard by the producers, it's a wonder how universities across the board haven't lined up to hire them. Oh wait, that's right, they don't know what they're talking about and have no credibility whatsoever. Little Jimmy doesn't know this though, and he has these woeful lies pushed into his subconscious so repeatedly that he comes to believe them. He grows up with them, and tells his kids about them, and so the cycle of dumbness continues, all because of History.
I know that's an extreme example, but consider how I learned about the first world war - through the History Channel. I didn't imagine it'd be wrong on many counts, yet I found this out the hard way when I looked into the July Crisis Project among other projects for the podcast. My point is, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that nobody could possibly fall for the dross spewed across History and H2 these days. Yet, we have to remember that we are not the ones watching such programs. Generally, if we ridicule them, we're not the ones to worry about - it's those kids who come home and watch such programs, thinking that they're watching actual factual documentaries - because why would a channel that names itself after a subject they study in school lie to them?
I'm not saying everyone's children will start turning into that guy from the Aliens meme, but it is worth considering the fact that television - even television which tries to present itself as educational - is no longer as reasonable as it used to be. I remember my mother coming in briefly one time when I was watching The History Channel back in the old days, remarking on how boring it was, but then telling me after the event that she was glad I was at least learning something. You just don't get that from History in any shape or form any more, and I wouldn't let my children watch it without a stern pep talk about its general crappiness first. This transition is a genuine shame, but all is not lost for the school of history.
All Is Not Lost
The thing is, there is so much good stuff out there if you take the time to search for it. Little wonder then that many history enthusiasts have turned to the likes of YT or history podcasts for their fix. One of the reasons I wanted to write this article wasn't to simply throw more turds at History, it was instead to say to everyone, to little Jimmy when he comes home from school, to your friend that says he loves history but hates what History is doing right now, and maybe even to myself, that it's time to just move on. It's time to stop scrolling past History on the TV guide and rolling my eyes; it's time to stop hoping that it will ever get better. It is also time to accept that History was always going to degenerate into this format, since they'd pretty much been doing this all along.
Think about it - back in the days of the Hitlery Channel the execs of that place were motivated by the exact same things. They made stars out of whichever documentary or theme stuck best. It just so happened that their star at that point had a distinctive moustache and was responsible for the worst genocide of the 20th century. Back then, that was what people wanted to see. History execs, quite understandably, sought to give the audience what they wanted, and this continued right up to the situation we have now.
History and the History Channel before it, as well as so many of its sister channels, were probably destined to fail in our eyes, because, and I know this is hard to take, history does not sell. That is to say, it can sell if it's done right and supported by an enthusiastic staff with sufficient grants, and if the station execs in question don't put money and profit ahead of good quality production with a genuine purpose. The fundamental problem is that such motivations are increasingly rare. Execs aren't there to educate people, they're there to make their network money. Besides, people don't seem to want to learn from history, or any other kind of documentary - they just want to be entertained. That, History's execs say, is why they've flooded the channel with all this...er, "entertainment". In a formula, in a business such as that which History undeniably is, we shouldn't be surprised to see the channel descend into irrelevance. What I hope you take from this depressing dose of reality - and be honest, you probably knew this already, you may have just hoped things would get better - is that it doesn't matter what has happened or what will happen to History. Why? Well allow me to explain...
Perhaps the most striking thing to happen in the last few years is the explosion of genuinely incredible, independently produced, historical content, and most of it for free. I'm not just talking about history podcasts of course. YouTube also holds a claim to be saving history, whether it realises it or not. Several independently minded creators are doing their bit on that medium for the discipline of history. Nick Hodges talks about historical films and comments on their inaccuracies in his excellent History Buffs series; the team at both the Great War and It's History studios produce quality stuff on a regular basis; heck, this incredibly well done Polish documentary about Jan Sobieski really brought me closer to the guy's life. Even we at WDF have been known to dabble in YT on occasion...
I take much encouragement from the fact that the Great War's Patreon page is currently bringing in over $17,000 a month, which enables the employment of a whole team of folks to work on legitimate historical documentaries as their jobs. This is literally funded completely by the fans of that YT series, because people actually care about history, and by supporting, they flip the bird to the likes of Ancient Aliens, just as that show flipped us one when it started taking over our once beloved Channel. Even Netflix is getting in on the action, with a few docs like Dan Jones' Battle Castle series, which brings history to life in the same way as his books.
There's also more reinforcements to come, as later this year will see the launch of HISTORY HIT.TV, a by-product of the ever-expanding ambitions of Dan Snow and company, who have launched a fundraiser to ensure their plan becomes a reality. The goal, Dan and co. said, was to launch a history documentary on-demand service; so Netflix for history nerds essentially, with the intention that those that pledged to set it up would get membership subscriptions, and the higher pledges would get subscriptions for life. They offered additional perks, but the ambitions seemed high when they launched the fundraising drive in June. They needed, Dan said, £100,000 to get the plan off the ground with a measure of speed and organisation. If the monies couldn't be raised in time, they would still launch, but with a reduced scope. Much like I am inspired by the fact that THE GREAT WAR could make $17k a month, I am delighted to say that Dan Snow & Co. (he should copyright that) have utterly smashed their target. The current amount raised stands at nearly £150,000, and with another month to spare!
When I look at such facts, I find it easier to throw the last few shovel fulls of dirt onto History's corpse. I don't feel sad about the death of that channel anymore, and I don't expect it will get any better even while I resent the potential dangers it still poses to our intelligence. A quick glance at the general TV guide these days testifies to the fact that stupidity does sell. Yet, what the likes of THE GREAT WAR and HistoryHit.TV demonstrate is the assured fact that people do care about history and they are perfectly willing to pay for it, even if the big corporate suits are not. In time, I imagine history itself becoming, not necessarily an elitist subject, but certainly something one has to look for online rather than being able to find on TV. This is of course a shame, but at the same time the sheer range of content, backed up as it'll be by faithful subscribers and supporters, will more than make up for it. This is the future of history, if you'll pardon the expression, and if you love history then you should be excited.
As you of course know though, history is not limited to documentaries played out on a screen. Many historical topics otherwise under-examined or unknown can be found in intricate detail in spoken audio format. The birth of the history podcast, right about the time when the Hitlery Channel was gasping its last breaths before History took over, has changed everything. Indeed, HistoryHit.TV itself has been possible because of the notoriety and response Dan Snow & Co. received from their HistoryHit podcast. How great is that? Not only do people not need images in front of them to stay entertained - they are also willing to find the likes of Dan Snow & Co, not to mention countless other history podcasters, talk about their chosen subject. Not only do the listeners listen, they also support through several means including, you guessed it, with cold hard cash.
The death of History has led to the birth and thriving of history in independent, responsibly produced and thoroughly enjoyed programs across the length and breadth of the historical discourse. One needs only to search in the history podcasts section, search the history documentaries section in YouTube or Netflix, or pretty soon surf HistoryHit.TV to see this thriving on full display. History is flourishing, and it doesn't need people in suits nattering on about viewership, just as much as it doesn't need reality shows that demonstrate how history is somehow 'made every day'.
All it needs, in this age we are most fortunate and blessed to live in, is a history enthusiast eager to learn and engage with it themselves. So go now - go and wave your last goodbye to The History Channel, scatter its ashes in some bastion of learning, and prepare, at last, to be properly, legitimately, entertained. History is not dead; it is instead rising from the old, ignorant chains which once bound it, and thanks to producers like us and enthusiasts like you, it is destined to reach even greater heights into the future. Let's do this together, let's make history thrive.
You have been reading the latest from Zack Twamley of When Diplomacy Fails Podcast, which is a history podcast examining wars throughout history with diplomacy and international relations at the forefront of our examinations. You can check us out here, but until then thanks for reading, and make sure to like, comment and share this article if you got a kick out of it, I really appreciate it!