Is History on TV getting dumber?
I think most people have at least a passing interest in history. For some it's embedded in a particular area; whether it be the history of steam engines, world war 2, or the Roman empire. Others may have just a vague interest in watching antiques shows or visiting National Trust properties. The main outlet for stoking the average person's interest in history is likely to the TV; almost everyone owns one and we probably all spend too much time in front of it. But what does TV really teach us about history these days?
In the 1990's we had such shows as 'War Walks' with Richard Holmes and the excellent 'Time Team'. There wasn't a lot else, but I think Time Team paved the way for a wider range of shows. In the early 2000's with the advent of digital TV we had National Geographic, Discovery, the History Channel, the Military history channel and a selection of others all showing decent documentaries. At almost any time of day, you could switch on the TV and become embroiled in the clash of gladiators, revisit monarchies past or voyage with the pilgrim fathers to America. What have we got now?
The military history channel died off years ago. The BBC and channel 4 still churn out the occasional historical drama-documentary, but there's not that much outside of the documentary channels. Then, there's not that much on those channels either; a quick look at the listings on the History channel indicate an almost identical daily itinerary. Let's take a quick look at some of them;
Pawn Stars; I admit to liking this one. It's mildly educational, somewhat dramatised but watchable in the way that antiques shows pique your curiosity of 'what's that worth?'. Then we've got 'Deck Wars'; two teams of professional deck builders face-off to design the ultimate garden decking... ok, not sure what that's got to do with history. Duck Dynasty; ditto. Ice road truckers, Ozzy & Jack's world detour, counting cars... the list goes on. There's actually almost nothing on the history channel that has anything at all to do with history. When there is, it's late at night before the channel switches over to tele-shopping.
There are decent documentaries on TV if you're interested to find how stuff's built, why planes crash and so on, but history has taken a real back-seat in recent years. One of the worst is Hardcore Pawn; one of the most ridiculous shows on TV. Again, it's not really a history show- most of the items brought into the store don't have any historic value, the heavily scripted documentary from the makers of the Jerry Springer show is more about people screaming in hysterics and getting thrown out of the store; passingly amusing until you realise it's all acted out for the camera. History Channel did start the brilliant 'Vikings' but that's not so much history as entertainment; I'm not so much an expert on the era but I can pick out dozens of inaccuracies just in the costumes, and as much as I enjoy the blood-soaked adventures of Ragnar Lothbrok (who probably never really existed) the show is more about heads getting smashed than historical fact.
History on TV has been consigned to a few one-off documentaries, and a few decent mini-series- most of which hosted by Peter & Dan Snow without whom there'd seemingly be very little history on TV. It seems TV producers have decided history is too boring, most of what we do get has been twisted for entertainment purposes. Even Time Team was accused of being dumbed-down for ratings in it's last series. Is it really the case that people would like to watch shows about bidding for the contents of shipping containers or delivering goods by road from Alaska on the history channel? Certainly if people want to learn history they can buy a history book, but I'm sure many who wouldn't necessarily choose to read a history book would prefer to sit on a Sunday afternoon and watch a show about the destruction of Pompeii than to see a greasy pawn-shop owner yell at disgruntled customers to get the f@#k out of his store.