The new History Channel: a modern television tragedy

“Pawn Stars.” “American Pickers.” “Outback Hunters.” “Swamp People.” “Ice Road Truckers.” “Hairy Bikers.” “The Men Who Built America.”

All of these shows have something in common, and it’s a problem “” but more on that in a moment.

After seeing promos for the last show on that list, I was excited and even looking forward to reviewing it for my column this week. The promotional material showed realistic portrayals of great American pioneers and entrepreneurs such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller among others in high quality scripted scenes seemingly giving us a glimpse into the men and events that “built America.” In the age of “Boardwalk Empire” and “Mad Men” it looked to me, and to many others I have read recently, that the History Channel was premiering a high-concept period scripted drama, and, frankly, I was ecstatic.

As far as historical figures being depicted for a TV show, strong-willed and ruthless pioneers such as those featured in the promos for “The Men Who Built America” looked to be a great choice for a scripted drama. Imagine my disappointment when last Tuesday the show debuted and these scenes of “men building America” turned out to be reenactment footage.

Yes, you read correctly: what looked like it was going to be another “Boardwalk Empire” was instead a “talking head” style documentary spliced together with reenactment footage. Mind you some of the highest-budget, highest-quality reenactment footage I had ever seen, but the scenes literally came between interviews with Donald Trump and Mark Cuban blabbing about how hard-working the men in the footage were. I didn’t make it through the first half hour without switching to a Seinfeld rerun and pulling up Wikipedia to see what in the world is going on with what used to be “the” History Channel.

I’m not saying that I used to be an avid viewer of the channel, but I used to know exactly where to go to be reminded who won the Second World War. Instead I looked over a list of the most popular shows on the network and was appalled. I had heard of many of the shows I listed above (mainly from watching “The Soup”), but what were they doing on a channel that was known for documentaries? I quickly found the culprit next to the smoking gun category for most media entities in this country: “Owned by: A&E Television Networks,” a media conglomerate whose flagship network is known for such quality programming as “Storage Wars” and “Hoarders.”

Rivaled only by the programming on the equally ironic TLC, A&E is the epitome of basic cable trash programming.  Upon further investigation, much of the History Channel’s upper management consists of transfers from the A&E channel, making the prominence of low-budget reality shows even less of a surprise with the motto of “what worked for A&E will work for us” clearly being adopted. Granted, History Channel is achieving ratings never before seen in its “history” (pun intended) but the station’s story is truly a modern tragedy.

The network’s motto has been changed to “History: Made Every Day,” but truthfully every day the channel’s management is making historically poor decisions in terms of quality programming and viewer interest. Whereas “The Men Who Built America” looked like, and could have been, an opportunity to bring the network to a competitive level with the likes of AMC or even HBO and keeping the network relevant, instead it serves as one of the last remnants of a now “historical” network as it spirals downward towards meaningless competition with the likes of TLC, A&E and even Lifetime.