The History Channel and the Challenge of Historical Programming
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 30, Number 2, 2000
- pp. 7-16
- Additional Information
Television as Historian | Special In-Depth Section THE HISTORY CHANNEL AND THE CHALLENGE OF HISTORICAL PROGRAMMING by Brian Taves HISTORY THEATER: Tf all the world's stage, history is its theatre, This show features outstanding theatrical presentations, from both the US and England, set in historic periods. Presented in the form of multi-episode series, it's a new way to watch compelling stories unfold day after day while you enjoy quality television. HIGH POINTS IN HISTORY: A virtual anthology ofhistorical documentaries High Points offers a wide range of perspective on greatness. Shows that cover some of the next most important events and people from the past, and that take viewers back to places and the moment that still stand out for the way they've shaped who we are today. The History Channel was launched at the beginning of 1995 as an offspring of the eleven-year-old Arts & Entertainment network (A&E). In subsequent years, The History Channel has increasingly become a standard part of basic cable packages, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Emerging with the evolving proliferation of cable stations that began in the 1980s, The History Channel has joined the constellation of stations devoted to specialized non-news nonfiction entertainment for particular audiences, including nature (Animal Planet), gardening (Home & Garden Network), Travel Channel, and such generalized documentary channels as Discovery and The Learning Channel (TLC). This article examines the inherently problematic nature of such an endeavor as The History Channel, together with how The History Channel has accomplished its own goal offinding a commercial niche. At the outset, there is a temptation to put the name "History Channel" in quotes, given the simultaneous grand nature of such a designation and the expectations such an appellation raises from a scholarly standpoint. The very concept of a History Channel spawns obvious questions, extending from how history will THE REAL WEST: Buffalo Bill, General Custer, Dodge City. Now, there is an entire series devoted to exploring some of America's most enduring myths and legends . The Real West covers some of the subjects Americans love best in an enlightening and entertaining way, like cowboys, outlaw gangs and boom towns. It provides unusual close-ups, not just of the best known stories, but of fascinating sidelights, such as Wild West Shows, Wild, Wild Woman and the Texas Rangers. YEAR BY YEAR: Year By Year, travels back in time to chronicle the events that stand out and define some of history's most interesting years. Each episode is focused on a single year, and combines documentary newsreel and historic footage so that you'll experience it, not just as it looks to us today, but how it was seen and reported by the people at the time. The History Channel promises "AU of History. All in One Place." (Courtesy ofA & E Television Networks.) be told, to what modes of address will be used. However, initially an even more practical issue needs to be asked: How does one analyze a specific television channel? There is little existing academic literature to provide a model for how a commercial cable channel may be examined, and network or public broadcasting channels are too radically different in their origin, audience focus, and commercial needs to be treated analogously. From a practical standpoint, analyzing a particular channel is possible principally through examining the range ofprograms that are broadcast—specific series and episodes . Accordingly, this article is based on the primary experience ofclosely watching arepresentative sample ofThe History Channel, over thirty full hours, where there was already a familiarity with much of the fare that originated elsewhere and was being rerun. Some of the shows were selected at random, including one full day's documentary programming. Others were chosen based on various personal interests, or on subjects where sufficient expertise was available to evaluate the accuracy ofthe presentations.1 Overall, this essay delineates not only the types of history presented in a variety of series and programs, and the Vol. 30.2 (2000) I 7 Taves I The History Channel and the Challenge of Historical Programming differences in stylistic modes, but also how they manifest certain trends in programming, most apparent in the contrast between old...