Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

July 15, 2009

Putting the Hitler Channel in Perspective

Filed under: Education,Historians,Television — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:09 am

In the past week or so, Alexander Street Press has sent me several emails touting my free one-month “Scholar’s Pass” to an online resource called American History in Video, which they evidently want to sell to universities. Looking into this, I see that the product is chiefly old newsreels and History Channel videos, definitely more in the mild general interest category than anything with much academic educational value. For my favorite period, the Early Republic, AHIV seems to consist entirely of History Channel material and episodes of A&E’s Biography, almost all of it concerned with refighting the Revolutionary War or celebrating the Founders, basic cable-style. There are only three titles listed under “Early National Era,” and one of those is really a Revolution title (about Paul “The Midnight Rider” Revere).*

Now, I must admit at the outset that I have never been a huge fan of the History Channel. The somewhat higher-brow PBS stuff works just fine for college students and usually shaves off fewer IQ points. How much do costumed guys running across a field and the substitution of breathless Basic-Cable-Narrator Guy for the stentorian vocal stylings of Edward Herrmann or David McCullough really add? Anyway, the newer PBS documentaries have got the costumed guys now too, but at least the public TV docs have gone through grant processes that force the producers to seriously consult historians.

Alexander Street’s attempt to package History Channel material for libraries made me want to check if I had missed out on some increase in the channel’s educational ambitions. Back in the early days of cable, the History Channel seemed to be nothing but reruns of old World War II documentaries, and I have heard even non-historians laugh about it being the “Hitler Channel.” (Indeed, Urban Dictionary agrees that “Hitler Channel” is now official street argot.) But maybe things had changed? I do remember Newt Gingrich or someone touting the History Channel as one of the key reasons for the coming obsolescence of academic history books and courses and faculty, so perhaps one should check.

Things have indeed changed, as my screenshot from Monday’s History Channel home page attests. (Click it if you want to be able to read it.) There seems to be only one WWII series running now, “Patton 360,” which I can only hope places a CGI George C. Scott in some immersive 3-D environments where he can smack down Nazi vampires or his own loafing troops.

However, “Patton 360″ is pretty much it for history most nights on The History Channel and “History.com” (they own us, friends) these days.  The rest of the offerings seem to indicate that the network’s programming niche is not infotainment about the past, but instead manly workplace-based reality shows for guys who like their basic cable as Big As All Outdoors. We noticed from the promos during the Cardinals broadcasts that the History Channel seemed to be very engrossed in the oh-so-historical doings of the Ice Road Truckers, from which we learn that it seems to take a big man to provide the friction that the big rigs need to stay on those ice roads. Then there was Ax Men, a competitive logging show, followed by Deep Sea Salvage and Tougher in Alaska. Clearly Sarah Palin should set up her forthcoming helicopter hunting and moose dressing show right here on THC. I hope that is an appellation THC will soon adopt, following in the focus-losing, initializing tradition of other basic cable outlets like AMC, TLC,  and TNN, none of which involve many classic movies, learning, or Nashville music anymore, respectively. For the pasty indoor but still manly set, I see they are premiering a new show set in a pawn shop, just in time for the recession.

Go deeper into the schedule and website, and you get to the pseudoscience shows, like a Bigfoot-hunting program called MonsterQuest. In fairness, I am sure they are hot on the trail of other cryptids as well.  MonsterQuest fans include bulletin board poster “Maldar34,” contributor of the following panegyric to the intelligence of History Channel viewers:

Dudewe know this already. Were not some dumb southern hicks that are drunk 98% of the time. We also can tell when somthing is fake or not. Look at the bigfoot reports thread both me and dontwatch have agreed on the fact that most of them are fake. There was one involving a bioligist biking through a forest in washington that seemed very credible if yuu want me to i can find it. But seriously were not some dumb rubes that have a meeting every night on how bigfoot impregnated my wife while i was being probed by aliens. Were just not idiots. We are people of science who belive the exsistence of somthing ou think doe not exsist. You dont have to be rude about it.

I wish that were a satire, but I’m fairly sure that it isn’t, because there were a lot more guys like that where he came from. They were arranging to go on hunts through the site.

It all kind of makes you long for the old Hitler Channel just a little bit. People were learning some history there, even if it was somewhat limited and possibly led to a few viewers getting just a little too interested in the Nazis, if you know what I mean.

It would be easy to dismiss the present pseudo-History Channel as popular nonsense that does not concern us “real” historians. Yet some academic commenting on Stan Katz’s recent Chronicle piece, which answered an alarmist NYT story about the decline of traditional history courses, seemed to regard the History Channel as a kind of saving grace for the world of boring academic knowledge, if not the whole culture. This seems to be what a frightening number of educated people think our discipline should be about:

As for history – it is the only interesting field I have found now that every other discipline is mired in identity politics, and entertainment is nothing but explosions and chick flicks. Hooray for the History Channel with its 360 degree battles! and other excellent programming. Kids do need to learn what history has to offer, and I tell you, when the kids get into the personalities that accompany world events, they like it.

Get the kids into personalities, that’s how we will get them to understand their world. Why didn’t we think of that?

*In fairness, one of the Early Republic shows that was available concerned Andrew Jackson’s conquest of Florida and seems to heavily feature incoming SHEAR president-elect Harry Watson. That one I may have to watch all the way through (even though it was part of a series called The Conquerors that seems to date back to early Iraq times and perhaps celebrates conquering stuff just a little bit).
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