Reviews > Television

The History Channel

Television | One cable channel offers genuine reality TV: historical documentaries 24 hours a day

Issue: "Johnny Carson: In memoriam," Feb. 5, 2005

The History Channel is the cable network of choice for those who do not particularly like television. Instead of stale sitcoms, stereotyped dramas, and contrived game shows, viewers can watch genuine reality TV: historical documentaries, 24 hours a day.

Documentaries now make up a good chunk of cable programming, what with National Geographic, A&E, Biography, and the various Discovery Channels and with more on the way. War, ancient civilizations, and the history of technology dominate programming on the History Channel. The documentaries feature location shots, interviews with experts, period footage, and actors dressed up in costumes to illustrate the voice-over explanations.

The History Channel usually avoids political bias. The much-hyped special on the French Revolution balances the celebration of "liberty, equality, fraternity" with chilling accounts of how the attempt to remake society according to Reason led to the Reign of Terror.

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"Mysteries of the Bible" shows archeological sites, gives the context of the time, and usually shows a historical basis for what the Bible says. But the Bible itself is not taken as historical evidence, much less as an inerrant authority. And yet "Beyond the Da Vinci Code" effectively debunks each historical claim of that best-selling, Christ-denying novel.

The main problem with the History Channel approach is that it forces history into the mold of the TV show. The facts are presented according to the structure of the mystery story ("History's Mysteries"), the celebrity bio ("Nefertiti: The Mummy Returns"), or the action thriller ("Tales of the Gun").

Yes, history is often more complex. But academic historians have been minimizing the "great men" and "great events" approach to history, creating the impression that history is boring. The History Channel proves otherwise.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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