Home > Commentary, History, Pop Culture, TV > A (partial) defense of History Channel

A (partial) defense of History Channel


The announcement that History Channel will air a 10-hour scripted series based on the Bible, just a few months after very publicly rejecting a miniseries about the Kennedy family on the grounds of historically inaccuracy, is raising some eyebrows. James Poniewozik of Time.com, astute as ever, sums up the case well.


As a committed agnostic, I’m sympathetic to the argument that the Bible shouldn’t be regarded as a work of history in the sense that it accurately relates real world events which occurred in the past. Few but the most devout fundamentalists would argue otherwise.

But it’s absolutely a work of history in another sense. It’s a cultural artifact of rare significance spanning continents and millennia, on par with the Odyssey or Arthurian legend. It’s an ineffable, protean amalgam of historical truths, parables, cultural prisms, and good old-fashioned storytelling flair.


This makes it an altogether different case than that of The Kennedys, which sought to dramatize factual events – recorded, verified, remembered by plenty of people who lived through them first hand. Taking creative liberties with that sort of dictionary-definition history clearly runs afoul of History Channel’s nominal brand identity. I don’t think dramatizing the Bible falls under the same standard, and I similarly don’t think anyone would bat an eye if History announced it was producing a scripted tale of, for instance, Arthur’s exploits in Camelot.


Now, if we’re going to gripe about History Channel tarnishing or outright discarding its brand identity as one of cable’s preeminent institutions of nerdery – well, that’s an argument I’m even more sympathetic too, as I rant about after the jump.


That argument begins and ends with unyielding trend away from actual historical documentaries and towards incongruous reality pabulum like Pawn StarsAx Men, and something the Internet tells me exists which is called Swamp People, a link I refuse to click. For casual history buffs, the channel used to be a reliable place to flip on for an hour of disappearing into Renaissance Italy or the empire of Qin Shi Huang or what have you. In recent years, though, it’s clearly decided to ditch its original raison d’etre and become a Discovery Channel clone.


Hey, I suppose this is a smart business decision. Given that 90% of the commercials I’d see on that network were for life insurance and hearing aids, I’d suspect that programs about the War of 1812 weren’t roping in those coveted 18-34 year olds as reliably as the brass would’ve liked.


That’s where spin-off channel History International came in, picking up the slack while the parent station has devoted more and more hours of airtime to the shenanigans of Larry the Cable Guy. It reminds me quite a bit of the metamorphoses of MTV and VH1 around the early 2000s. Back then, the erstwhile Music Television was accelerating its total abandonment of music videos, while chasing younger and younger audiences.


Meanwhile, the latter trended away from stodgy adult contemporary rock and found a niche servicing the displaced early-thirtysomethings (and, um, prematurely grizzled early-twentysomethings) who had been reared on MTV. For those of us who missed Headbanger’s Ball and shook our canes at the whippersnappers on Total Request Live, VH1 was there to provide our Bon Jovi fix – often in the form of Behind The Music, but hey, you took what you could get. So it is today, as those of us jonesing for two hours on the French Revolution are shunted a bit further down the dial (yes, in this analogy, the French Revolution is playing the part of Bon Jovi).


Cable channels evolve and change purposes; most don’t change their names along with it, as anyone scratching their heads at the word “Syfy” can understand. History Channel has as much to do with history in as Music Television has to do with music. But a scripted version of the Bible feels much closer to its original intent, to me, than most of the rest of its current line-up.

Categories: Commentary, History, Pop Culture, TV
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