The Demise of History on TV

by Jeff Hendershott

Maybe the title of this article is a little misleading.  Maybe it should read "Do You Notice It, Too?"

I'm a lover of reading good history.  I believe with all the technology available today, there still is no better way to satisfy our intellectual hunger for history - or any other subject for that matter - but with a well-written book (yeah, those are becoming tougher to come by too, but that's another story).

However, I can remember not all that long ago the excitement I felt when our little community's cable service was adding The History Channel to the menu! Having little, no, make that NO patience for what passes for "entertainment" on the boob-tube these days, I was looking forward to programming from a channel that actually included ME in their demographics.  I was starting to really wonder if there actually was a demographic group that I could fit into anymore! 

To the nub:  OK, I can't dis the History Channel across the board.  When they started out, they were offering a wide-range of programming to interest the lover of history.  And pretty well-done, too, getting the "leading" academics (whose books no one typically reads) to chime in on the topic at hand, decent period reenactments, nice on-site visuals and educational relevance.  Even now, they can offer some of the same.

But that's the problem? The programming often leaves me scratching my head and wondering "What the hell does THIS have to do with history?"

I guess there is an audience for "Engineering Disasters" and "Modern Marvels."  Granted, you can make a reach and tie it into "history."  Walk into a public school history classroom and you'll see teachers tie some pretty bizarre stuff into history (I know of a history teacher who showed the movie "The Breakfast Club" in their class!  If you can tell me what THIS movie had to do with history, I really would like to know!)

Then somewhere not long ago, someone opened up the vaults to the zillions of miles of World War II footage.  Yes, we just celebrated an anniversary - rightfully so - of significant World War II events.  But like a friend says, "I don't even want to do what I LIKE all the time" fits here.  If I were a World War II fanatic, I would have been in a state of bliss with the History Channel.  But there's little doubt they played this card way too far.  When I started calling it "The World War II Channel," I was happy to find that others were calling it that too.  Hey, I'm not that cynical and crazy after all!  Others see it!

I'm a huge fan of R. Lee Ermey as an actor, and I know I'll draw boos and hisses for this (remember, just an opinion), but "Mail Call" irritates me.  It's too "MTV-ish."  But objectively speaking, it's probably the only regular programming that serves the historian on a regular basis - providing you love military history only.

But the real problem as I see it still is the almost pathological obsession with Adolph Hitler.  Why, as I write this, on the air right this very moment is a History Channel program titled "High Hitler," documenting Hitler's chronic drug use.  Okey dokey!  We need to know this?  As a footnote to history, maybe?  I don't know.  But this pales in comparison to their recent installment about Hitler's sex life.  You can interpret the historical importance of this.  I just don't get it.

Well, I do "get it," in context maybe, to the times in which we live.  Sex sells.  Hitler sells!  Indeed, for better or worse, Hitler is one of those Charles Manson personalities so twisted and bizarre, yet "attractive" in a weird way to read about or even have a cursory interest in.  I guess in short, the History Channel has more or less "sold out" to the trends, the ratings, in order to survive.

Your other channels that propose to "entertain your mind" like the Learning Channel and the Discovery Channel have also dumbed-down.  Their programming, at least initially too, was quite interesting.  Now, it's the place to go to watch car crashes and cop chases, some big bruiser showing how to fix a Harley Davidson, or your "reality" programming where people invade another person's home and give it an "extreme makeover."  Natural disasters are big these days too on cable TV.  Actually, were talking bottom line here.  This stuff is INEXPENSIVE to produce!  It's trendy.  But don't expect too much ducation.

Don't get me wrong - I don't stand on a self-righteous stump here and believe that America should spend its disposable time watching nothing but "brain food" (as if TV ever was intended for that purpose).  Yet I'd submit to the channels who claim to be "educational" to at least come forward with the truth and change their names.  Where's the history?  The discovery?  The learning?

Alternatives?  PBS?  Ahhhhhh.........OK.  I think they still try the hardest.  Their "American Experience" series is very good.  Hmm.  After that, I'm hard-pressed to come up with any more alternatives to please us "history nuts."

Hollyweird occasionally "gets it right" too.  Occasionally, mind you.  I believe the best period-piece to come out of Tinseltown lately was "Master and Commander."  I don't know enough about naval history during the early 1800's to critique the story's accuracy, but I was enthralled with the attention to detail of naval warfare (what little I know about it) and by God, it wasn't a chick flick!  Bravo!

Well now, no, come to think of it, here an alternative!  Sorry Jonah, we part company here (Jonah doesn't "get" the Stooges).  As a major league fan of the Three Stooges, there's an alternative to get your fix of "history TV."  Aside from the two episodes the boys did on the Civil War, there's episodes where they mock Nazi Germany.  "I'll Never Heil Again" features Moe Howard as the first person ever to parody Hitler on film (and who says JonahWorld! isn't educational?)  Larry, Curly and Moe revive the act in "You Nasty Spy," both these short features made during World War II.  And if Moe doesn't make a great Hitler when he dons the half-comb mustache, no one does (OK, Charlie Chaplin maybe....).

So, when you get weary of watching "Gods and Generals" (which took me one painful viewing), and get fed up with "educational TV" programming showing 20 foot tidal waves, five-car pile ups and the finer points of tuning up a motorcycle, check out the Stooges!  And keep checking out or buying those books and read, brothers and sisters in history.  Technology has already flat-lined when it comes to satisfying our passion.