Right Wing Nut House

1/9/2010

Of Ax Men and Astro Babes

Filed under: General, History, The Rick Moran Show — Rick Moran @ 11:27 am

This article originally appears at Newsreal Blog, David Horowitz’s new media venture. It was published in two parts: Part 1 was posted yesterday; Part 2 went up today.

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The network formerly known as The History Channel has come a long way from its start up back in 1995. At that time, there were questions about how big an audience there would be for a network that dealt with a subject most Americans find irrelevant or boring.

They needn’t have worried. Now dubbed simply History, the Arts and Entertainment network offshoot regularly outperforms its flagship channel and is poised to improve upon its top ten ranking in the all important 25-54 age group this year with a mix of reality TV, first class documentaries, and audience grabbing psuedo-history programming on everything from UFO’s to the coming “Apocalypse” in 2012.

But the question in my mind, and one that should concern those of us who love history and revere the past, is how far afield the network can wander from its roots and still hold its base audience of history nuts?

Indeed, the channel that was once known as “The Hitler Network” because of its seemingly endless supply of World War II documentaries, now features several “working class hero” shows that don’t offer much in the way of history but are cheap to produce and garner large audience shares due to the personality driven story lines. Ax Men, a series that follows a group of loggers through a season of thrills, spills, and personality conflicts, is entering its third year of production, and along with the gritty reality hit Ice Road Truckers shows that History is perfectly willing to eschew the traditional, more linear and academic documentary format to give the audience what it wants; real- life danger and edgier programming.

The network’s newest reality hit, a takeoff on the PBS series Antiques Roadshow called Pawn Stars, at least has a tangential connection to “history” in that the Las Vegas pawn shop featured on the show takes in an eclectic mix of weird and wonderful objects that, at times, have surprising antecedents. But the drama comes from the conflicts between family members, including an overbearing father who runs the shop.

Couple these reality shows with the growing number of offerings dealing with pseudo-science and pure fantasy, and history buffs might wonder where their network has gone. UFO’s, Nostradamus, and especially the wacky notion that the world is going to end in 2012 might improve ratings, but you can get similar fare on the SyFy Channel. Looking for monsters, tracking the movements of Aliens, and the seriousness with which the predicted 2012 Apocalypse is examined make History unwatchable many nights. Even Hitler would be an improvement to speculation about the Yeti.

This is not to say there aren’t flashes of excellent programming for the history connoisseur. Two general interest science programs almost make up for the nonsense offered during the rest of the week. The Universe, with its high end production values and mix of commentary by enthusiastic astronomers augmented by beautiful animation sequences, is can’t miss TV even if astronomy isn’t your cup of tea.

The series features many younger scientists - including some very attractive female astronomers I’ve dubbed “Astro Babes” - who not only offer clear, easy to understand explanations for the enormously complex concepts being examined, but seem to connect well with the audience on their level. Treating the viewers like adults is a welcome change from some other science fare broadcast elsewhere.

Similar care is taken in producing How the Earth Was Made. The show is unique in that it treats each subject - how the Rockies were formed, or plate tectonics, for example - as a detective story. Tracing the history of discovery, the series shows how science is done; building on knowledge gleaned from the past and combined with information learned using the latest gee-whiz gadgetry to arrive at a satisfying answer. Before each commercial break, the narrator summarizes what has been learned so far, giving the viewer the opportunity to share in how the answers were puzzled out. It is a show that is visually stunning and intellectually satisfying - a rare combination indeed.

But it is the historical documentary that has drawn us to History over the years and the general excellence of these all too infrequent programs causes the buff to ask why more of this kind of intelligent, high quality fare can’t be produced. For instance, the recent World War II in HD transcended its documentary format and became history itself. Years in the making, the film makers lovingly crafted 10 hours of gripping, and entertaining full color home movies, archived military footage, and period stills from thousands of submissions into a not to be forgotten mix of pride, patriotism, and pathos - all in glorious HD.

It is unrealistic to expect such excellence on a nightly or even weekly basis. But History has shown in the past that the long form documentary not only makes for compelling TV but also is able to gather an audience. Film maker Ken Burns has been quite successful in weaving stories and pictures into a seamless tapestry that is both achingly beautiful and a treat for the mind.

Even the shorter series-type documentaries like Patton 360 , which features jaw dropping 3-D views of the general’s battlefield, as well as the less serious, but still interesting Cities of the Underworld give nuance and context to previously hidden history.

In the end, it’s all about what draws the largest audience. History is not public TV and the consortium that owns the network are not in the charity business. Still, as this big write up in the Los Angeles Times on the network reveals, the corporation must walk a fine line in their programming between programming for profit and giving their core viewership what they crave.

History’s 41 year old president Nancy Duboc may have found a way to thread the needle:

Dubuc hopes to banish any questions about the network’s commitment to serious fare in April, when History makes its biggest and most expensive play yet: a 12-part series that will tackle the history of the United States from Jamestown to present day.

“America: The Story of Us” is being produced by Jane Root, a veteran British television executive who knows how to do epic television: She oversaw the launch of Discovery Channel’s “Planet Earth” when she ran that network. History is casting the project, inspired by the sense of momentousness that followed President Obama’s election, as the first comprehensive television history of the country since Alistair Cooke’s 1972 series “America: A Personal History of the United States.”

Cooke’s love letter to his British cousins about America is considered one of the finest documentaries ever made - a grand, sweeping paean to this country and her people. What can we expect from History’s ambitious effort to tell America’s story?

The recent History program The People Speak, based on far left professor Howard Zinn’s execrable one volume Peoples History of the United States portrayed America in a most unflattering light. It highlighted our sins, condemned the people as racist, sexist homophobes, and glorified some fairly unsavory characters.

Given the fact that this project was greenlighted by Duboc, I am not very confident that America: The Story of Us will rise above the kind of revisionist history popular on the left and give our whole, remarkable narrative the treatment it deserves.

Regardless of how that program plays out, the network still features enough quality historical programming to make it a worthwhile stop several times a week. Perhaps in the future, a television network devoted exclusively to the kind of historical programming many of us would love to see will come into existence. With a constantly fragmenting audience on cable and satellite TV, that possibility may become reality sooner than we think.

But for now, we’ll have to settle for History and its uneven mix of the serious, the sublime, and the silly.

7 Comments

  1. [...] this article: Of Ax Men and Astro Babes [...]

    Pingback by Of Ax Men and Astro Babes | Liberal Whoppers — 1/9/2010 @ 11:42 am

  2. I do hope this documentary will be a treatment of American history. Like any civilization America has its flaws and its good points. Unfortunately right now the American people suffer from a form of amnesia. Our flaws are well known by all in every part of the world. They are well documented and chronicled. They can be recited by every American from 5 years of age and up. The amnesia comes into play becuase we seem to have forgotten the good things our country has done.

    Comment by B.Poster — 1/9/2010 @ 2:26 pm

  3. I meant I hope this documentary will be a fair treatment of American history.

    Comment by B.Poster — 1/9/2010 @ 2:26 pm

  4. Greetings:

    I get my television the old-fashioned way, over the air. In the wake of the government’s analog-to-digital TV conversion, I began getting a number of different stations, perhaps to replace the one’s I lost. One that I now enjoy is a Korean station, KBS. Thankfully, many of its programs have English subtitles. The station broadcasts a number of serial historical dramas about Korea’s admittedly much longer history. What has struck me is how much, as opposed to American TV, KBS’ program affirm and support Korean values. Respect for elders, those in authority, Korean culture, even Korea’s military draft are affirmed even by Korean celebrities. But, it’s those historical dramas, with their choppy-choppy and Dragon Ladies that are my guilty pleasures. Hopefully, after a while, I will get better at recognizing who is who.

    Comment by 11B40 — 1/9/2010 @ 8:32 pm

  5. Shorter Rick Moran: History doesn’t sell but histortainment does.

    Comment by Shaun Mullen — 1/10/2010 @ 9:30 am

  6. Mr. Moran,

    I absolutely agree about the trend on History. I used to watch all the time for the interesting programs on, well, American History. Civil War, American Revolution, the Presidents, all that stuff. It seems to have lost its way somewhat. I would suggest checking out some of the Weather Channel’s programs on “When Weather Changed History” for some good history programs. Tonight was a repeat of the First Iditarod. Great program even though we know how it ends. Also, on Dish, I get something called the Military. It seems to be a network that engages in quite a bit of 20th century military history. I just found it, but I’m going to keep it in mind.

    Joe5348

    Comment by joe5348 — 1/10/2010 @ 10:12 pm

  7. Not necessarily on the entire topic of the article, but it was mentioned…

    There is nothing funnier than the scenes of S&S Aqua Logging from the Ax Men series last year. The show really is pretty good and they were just classic.

    Comment by Scott — 1/12/2010 @ 8:22 am

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