In recent years, the History Channel has introduced a growing number of reality programs to its lineup.
Over the past few years, it’s been hard to ignore the growing dominance of reality television. From Survivor to The Bachelor. reality is king, and recently this phenomenon has begun to penetrate into certain areas of television that many feel are beyond its domain.
A chief example is the History Channel, as some longtime viewers have started to question if the station’s name has become something of a misnomer.
While not long ago patrons of the History Channel could expect to view documentaries covering the barbarian hordes of medieval Europe, the kings and queens of ancient empires or the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, the network’s programming currently is dominated by reality shows like Pawn Stars, American Pickers and Ice Road Truckers.
Since around 2008, when the channel changed its slogan from “Where the Past Comes Alive” to “History Made Every Day,” a shift in programming has been apparent.
The History Channel’s primary area of content has moved from its initial focus on international history — with an emphasis on military history — spanning from the present day to prehistory, to a more American-centered cultural history, focusing heavily on the material history of the modern era.
Shows like Pawn Stars, Ice Road Truckers, American Restoration, American Pickers, Swamp People, Top Shot and Mountain Men are highly representative of this change.
The station has also increased coverage of programs focused on alternant history theories and the unknown, highlighted by shows like Ancient Aliens, MonsterQuest, Decoding the Past, UFO Hunters, Nostradamus Effect and Brad Meltzer’s Decoded.
However, some of the channel’s fans — including college students who grew up watching the older programming — are dissatisfied with the changes in style and content that the network has made.
David Edwards, a senior at Concordia University says he is unhappy with the changes, disappointed with the “sad turn the channel has taken.” While he says he understands the historical value of shows like Pawn Stars and American Pickers, he says he feels as if the channel has “succumbed to the reality show craze” with the majority of its other programming.
University of Tulsa senior Eric Kuxhausen echoes Edwards’ complaints.
“In the quest to widen their [viewership], the History Channel has forsaken factual accounts of the past and replaced them with more reality TV,” he says.
The History Channel is “trashing [its] brand and doing a disservice to historians everywhere,” Kuxhausen says.
Some History Channel viewers see the programming changes as a positive. Julie Clements, a freshman at Sam Houston State, says that while she is not a fan of all of the new reality programs, “shows like Pawn Stars give us a balance of today’s society” with “a nice amount of [historical] information.”
Matthew Stepan, a senior at Sam Houston State says the new reality focus is more profitable than the older, documentary-based programming.
“Most people don’t want to watch a documentary about some historical event,” Stepan says. “They want to watch a show they can relate to, something that grabs their interest.”
But University of Dallas junior Shea Stevens says she saw the change as representative of a larger shift in our society. She says that our culture has become characterized by “complacency,” and that our recent focus on math and science in our educational system — due largely to governmental mandates like the No Child Left Behind Act — has exacerbated the already-growing lack of interest in history.
Stevens says she agrees with Stepan that the channel’s changes were largely due to a perceived lack of interest in traditional documentaries, but was also felt it was important for people to be “informed about the historical context of our own life”, a service she says she feels the History Channel no longer provides.
With yesterday’s bicentennial of the beginning of the War of 1812 passing with little acknowledgment by the American public, maybe there is still value in the traditional documentaries of the History Channel’s past.
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