Channeling History

Channeling History

Watching the History Channel

When I’m at a party and tell people that I teach American history, I often hear either, “You know, I’m fascinated by the Civil War” or a disquisition about a favorite president or something about a family’s past. Sometimes this response sparks an interesting conversation; often I turn glassy-eyed. No matter what, though, I like the response, because it suggests that people outside of academe have a desire to understand their own past. You can see that desire all around you—in museums, best-selling books written by David McCullough, and Hollywood movies about everything from the American Revolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Today, the leading institution that popularizes history in the United States is undoubtedly the History Channel (HC). Created in 1995, the HC is on cable television as part of the A&E Television Network. In the words of the New York Times, the HC has managed to “take history out of the PBS good-for-you realm and into the hurly burly of commercial television.” HC has made deals with book companies and with the New York City public school system, doing what modern cultural corporations must to ensure exposure of their products—become conglomerates spreading into every possible market and branding themselves. Today, the HC stands as the most visible form of popular history—the couch potato version of popular museums, reconstructed historical towns, and military reenactments.

In merging education and entertainment, the HC exemplifies what I call postmodern middlebrow culture. In 2002, USA Today, itself a premier institution of postmodern middlebrow culture, reported that “the lines are rapidly blurring between documentary-style series produced by entertainment divisions and those produced by network news.” This extends to the HC, where the historical documentary, replete with reenactment, talking-head experts, and stirring music, is central. This genre seems to appeal to viewers, even if it might do a disservice to some of the subject matter it treats. What it tells us about the popular reception of American history can only be discovered after doing what I did—sitting down and watching it for an extended period of time.

History as EntertainmentI admit that before watching the HC seriously, my knowledge about the channel came mostly from its press scandals. In 2004, the HC apologized for showing “The Guilty Men,” which purported that Lyndon Johnson was complicit with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Another less sensational but more telling story, in my mind, reported that the HC circulated a memo arguing that old fogies (for example, the late Stephen Ambrose, the best-selling historian who was once a regular talking head on the HC) should receive less airtime than “younger” and more “telegenic” historians. These younger historians didn’t “have to be the leading academic on the topic,” the memo went on to clarify.