From the mid-1990's to the late-2000's, there was a terrific thing on basic cable called The History Channel. A rich oasis in a dismal wasteland, it offered gritty, fact-filled documentaries on all things historical, including piracy, the Old West, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Nazi Germany, and so on. From its beginnings, The History Channel had its critics; they complained that its programming was heavily skewed towards middle-aged men, and that it was obsessed with Adolf Hitler. Still, during this brief time period, everyone had to agree that The History Channel was truly educational, and was one of television's best offerings.
That was then; this is now. Arguably, The History Channel is currently one of the worst networks on American television. Officially called "History" now, the network seems to have completely forgotten about its important original mission: to educate viewers. The new channel, to boost profits and to trim production costs, now broadcasts a depressing, steady stream of reality-TV programs. It's also wading deeply into outright pseudoscience. To make matters even worse, its current format is proving to be immensely profitable, and it looks clear that its programming is going to degenerate even further. That is tragic.
Let's start with the reality-TV programs. A few years ago, History learned what The Big Three Networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) have known for decades: that reality-TV programs can be tremendous money-makers. Thus, History is currently littered with such shows: Pawn Stars, American Restoration, American Pickers, Ax Men, Ice Road Truckers, etc. As far as reality-TV programs go, they're relatively inoffensive. At least they don't feature debauched fading celebrities. Generally, they are about real people (such as pawnbrokers and lumberjacks) doing real things (such as haggling and arguing at their workplaces). Still, they have virtually nothing to do with actual history. Some defenders feebly insist that the "antiquing" shows--such as Pawn Stars and American Pickers--are relevant to history: after all, they deal with antiques. However, it's a failed defense. On these programs, history takes a backseat. Their major draws stem from the seemingly endless haggling over prices. They really don't teach anyone about actual history. Of course, no one can defend programs like Ax Men and Ice Road Truckers, even if they are likable ones. They have nothing to do with history at all. They may as well be on CBS, NBC, or TLC.
These reality-TV shows on History are disappointing. Far worse is History's ever-growing reliance on so-called "educational" series that actually peddle pseudoscience. The biggest offender here is Ancient Aliens, which is shown on the network ad nauseam. Ancient Aliens premiered on History in early 2010. It was based on the premise that, long ago, aliens journeyed to Earth to teach prehistoric humans about civilization. Thus, aliens helped human beings to build the Pyramids and Stonehenge. At present, it has expanded on its original theme and pushes all sorts of paranormal nonsense: that people contain alien DNA; that the angels described in the Bible were actually spacemen; that crystals possess vast healing (and destructive) powers; that people and dinosaurs co-existed; and so on. This program might very well be the most ridiculous series ever brought to television, and yet it is becoming a cultural phenomenon. Millions of people take it seriously, largely because it has the general appearance of a "science" program, and because it appears on an "educational" channel. Ironically, this "educational" series actually "dumbs down" the typical viewer.
Many people might say: "So what? Television has always blended together entertainment and education." That may be true--but only to a point. Such people often bring up In Search Of..., Leonard Nimoy's beloved old science program that also drifted into the paranormal frequently. No, American civilization didn't deteriorate because of Nimoy's old program, but there are numerous differences between it and Ancient Aliens. Nimoy's series made sure that it presented the viewpoints of legitimate researchers who rejected these far-out hypotheses. In sharp contrast, Ancient Aliens presents the paranormal as the Gospel Truth. It even hints that stuffy, elitist scientists are trying to conceal "the truth" from average persons, for whatever bizarre reason or reasons. Thus, History is presenting programming that actively misleads viewers, and that is fraud.
Probably, the biggest victims of the ongoing fraud are children. Most adults know that Ancient Aliens presents hokum, but children generally aren't that discriminating. When they stumble upon a program on "educational TV," it is likely that they will swallow its contents hook, line, and sinker: it's "educational TV," after all. They're not learning, though. Instead, they are bombarded with misinformation. The History Channel is making our children less informed, and it seems to have no problem with that just as long as the profits keep rolling in.