Ask almost any history buff if they watch the History Channel and the most likely reply will be, “Oh, yeah, I used to.” Historical documentaries about the French Revolution, the Civil War, biographies and specials dominated the majority of lineups. I have fond memories of my dad and I spending hours watching them. It’s what I credit for my love of history. Granted, a lot of the information may have been misrepresented, like a high school history textbook, but it was interesting! I actually dreamed of being one of those featured historians on a segment. One year, I was hell-bent on becoming a director or producer of one of those historical documentaries.
But then, the dream faded.
I want to say it started with “Ice Road Truckers” in 2007. “Ok,” all of the historians said, “It’s only one reality show. We can live with that.” But it grew into something uncontrollable. They began showing “Ax Men”, and “Top Gear” and then “Shark Wranglers.” These shows have little to no historical relevance at all.
The channel is now all about reality shows and even changed its tagline to “History. Made Every Day.” Now, I understand what they’re going for here. History is extremely important in understanding our present. But trash TV does not belong on what used to be such an academically acclaimed television network. These shows focus on the drama of the character’s lives, and not what they’re doing.
But then there’s the pièce de résistance: “Pawn Stars.” If you haven’t heard of it, click that link right now. It’s the epitome of every historian’s nightmare. Copies of old, first edition, dusty, leather-bound books signed by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and all matter of historical figures or old swords used in hand to hand combat during the Middle Ages, are brought into a pawn shop (of all places) and sold for some extra cash. Not to a museum, oh no.
Granted, they give a lot of the history behind the item they’re buying. I guess that makes it all right to be on the History Channel, according to some big-wig studio producer. This show even has a spin-off called “Cajun Pawn Stars.” As if the first one wasn’t bad enough. Thankfully, History Channel has created a show combining the entertainment value of “Pawn Stars” with education and preservation in mind. “American Pickers” is a show about two guys who drive across the country going through people’s junk to find historical artifacts that can be restored and collected or sent to museums to be curated. You learn a lot about the old toys, signs, cars and other odds and ends that they find as well as knowing they’ll go to a good home (and not into a glass case in a pawn shop).
Now don’t get me wrong, History Channel isn’t entirely lost. The educational programming we’ve come to know and love is still being created. However, this type of programming has been put into specials like “WWII in HD,” “America: The Story of Us,” and “The Presidents.” These specials are few and far between. But for anyone looking to get a glimpse of what History Channel used to be, I would recommend these types of shows. Another silver lining is that the original programming is also shown on their sister channel “H2.” The downside is that is doesn’t come in a basic cable package.
There’s still hope for those who are looking for an entertaining way to learn some history and, in some ways, it’s even better than the History Channel. The new Smithsonian Channel is both more prestigious because it is run but the world-renowned Smithsonian Institute and more educational. They take you through museums and tell you the history of the pieces they have collected. They show a lot of specials dedicated to full coverage of specific topics. It’s an academic’s dream, but even those who aren’t into the educational side of these shows are entertained. Who wouldn’t want to see someone recreate dinosaurs in real life?
Want to chat about old History Channel shows? Have a burning historical question you’re just dying to know the answer to? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Twitter @sparkysquill.