A Channel is born
In 1992 A&E Networks produced a historical series called The Real West, hosted by country music icon Kenny Rogers. The Real West aired from 1992 to 1995 and was A&E’s highest rated show. With its success A&E decided to create a new channel, The History Channel, to show reruns of The Real West and new original historical documentaries. And the rest, as they say… is history (sorry it was too easy)
When The History Channel launched on January 1st, 1995 it focused on history documentaries and series, including the successful show The Real West. The Historical consultant for the newly formed The History Channel stated the mission of the channel was to “…raise awareness about the vitality of history, promote history education, and encourage the preservation of historic archives and sites.”
When The History Channel started it held to that mission. While The History Channel was filming its own original documentaries it also licensed documentaries from around the globe to fill the 24-hour programming. The original lineup included series like:
- History’s Crimes and Trials: a British Broadcasting Company (BBC) series which ran for 3 seasons and featured the century’s most notable crimes; episodes included The Jonestown Massacre, Bonnie and Clyde, the Son of Sam and many more. The series contains over 70 episodes.
- The Century of Warfare: also from the BBC, a 26 episode documentary that examined the entire century of world conflict from the turn of the century (1900) until the Gulf War in 1991.
- Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War: Originally produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) and licensed to A&E Networks to air on The History Channel
- Victory at Sea: an Emmy and Peabody award winning documentary produced in 1952 focusing on Naval Warfare during World War II. I own this documentary on DVD and it is excellent!
- Year by Year: Hosted by Karen Stone the show focused on a year in the 20th century and highlighted the politics, culture and entertainment that defined each year.
The first original show to air on the History Channel was Modern Marvels covering the history and technology of various subjects like the Eiffel Tower, the Space Shuttle and one episode featured 1980’s tech. The first episode “The Transcontinental Railroad” aired on 01 January 1995 and The last episode “Panama Canal Supersized” aired on 11 April 2015. Modern Marvels was a staple for 19 seasons and has over 690 episodes to watch!
The educational part of The History Chanel’s original mission included a show titled The History Channel (THC) Classroom which aired every morning and The History Channel encouraged schools to tape and show the program in the classrooms. They even released all rights to the programs for one year of the original air date! Along with the daily show they provided supplemental material to facilitate classroom learning and discussion. The classroom material included Vocabulary, Discussion Questions and Research Projects that dealt with the daily topic.
The classroom material could be printed or The History Channel would send it, free of charge to the schools. During the first year, over 20,000 packets were mailed to schools across America. THC Classroom would air on TV until the mid-2010s and then it went to an online only format. THC Classroom stopped creating new, hour long episodes around 2016. They still offer study guides, but a guide to the “Curse of Oak Island” doesn’t seem to offer much history.
In addition to THC Classroom series, there was also Year by Year: For Kids, which aired on the weekends, yeah, good luck getting kids to stop watching cartoons. Another show aimed at kids education was Inspector Gagdet’s Field Trip. Your favorite bumbling cyborg Inspector travels the globe and points out historical sites and facts.
As the millennium came to a close The History Channel was still holding true to its mission. Airing shows like, History at the Conventions, a look at the nations political conventions and Gridiron Generals, a history of College football. The History Channel introduced new series like History vs Hollywood, which featured historians and filmmakers discussing historical accuracy of movies.
As successful as The History Channel was in the first few years it didn’t come without scrutiny. Critics often derided it, calling it ‘The Hitler Channel,’ a knock on all the World War II programs on the channel. In its defense World War II was a treasure trove of programming. It was the first war where film was used extensively and a source of great national pride. In the late 1990s, The Vietnam War was still a fresh wound that no one wanted to talk about and the Korean War was (and still is) ‘The Forgotten War.’ World War II offered a look at American exceptionalism but the programming was wearing on viewers.
History drops ‘The’ and ‘Channel’
Somewhere in it’s teenage years The History Channel, now all hip and cool changed it’s name to just History. And like teenagers will do, History started to rebel against its history upbringing. Facing low ratings month after month History made a shift into reality programming; shows like UFO files and Conspiracy? started showing up on the airwaves.
In 2009 History premiered a reality show based in a pawn shop in Las Vegas. Pawn Stars, which is on its 16th season(!), chronicles the daily life of a pawn shop and features the ‘historic’ items that are offered for sale. Pawn Stars was an instant hit and quickly became History’s highest rated show. In 2011 it was the 2nd highest rated reality show on TV, right behind Jersey Shore.
Then the flood gates opened. With the success of Pawn Stars, History went all-in on reality programming. American Pickers, Ancient Aliens, Swamp People, Ax Men, and Shark Wranglers began to fill the airwaves. The older history documentaries were delegated to late night TV. Then the late night lineup was pushed out for paid infomercials.
History executives tried to put a good spin on the reality programs, but there’s nothing on Swamp People or Ax Men that resembles history. They even changed the tag line from ‘Where History Comes Alive’ to ‘Made Every Day.’ The programming was so far off the mark even Senator Chuck Grassley was criticizing the channel.
The Future of History
In 2012 History made another leap, this time into scripted programs. The Hatfields & McCoys aired on 28 May 2012 with big name stars Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton in the lead roles. The show was a success and won numerous awards including two Emmys and a Golden Globe. Riding the success of Hatfields & McCoys, History launched Vikings in 2013.
Vikings, an award winning series currently in its 6th and final season, follows a group of Vikings during the Middle Ages. I enjoy this show and for the first few seasons did a History vs Hollywood type podcast for the show. History would also launch two other scripted shows, Knightfall, about the rise and fall of the Knights Templar and Project Blue Book, about the Air Force’s study of UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s.
It’s not hard to imagine what the future holds for History. Finding good historical documentaries or series on History is almost impossible nowadays. They do have an upcoming mini-series on George Washington, which airs on 16 February 2020. To find all their old series and documentaries you need to subscribe to History Vault, their streaming service. At $5/month it’s not a bad deal.
As you can see by the list of most popular shows below there isn’t any true history listed. I’d be lying though if I said I didn’t watch any of them. I enjoy sitting down and watching bladesmiths crank out a knife or sword on Forged in Fire.
Upcoming shows on History include The Commanders a scripted anthology show based on the United States Presidents. It will cover the first 42 Presidents from George Washington to Bill Clinton. Harlem Hellfighters is a documentary about the African-American infantry unit that fought in World War I. Those two shows are tempered by Lost Gold of World War II a reality show which follows a group of treasure hunters as they try to discover, well, lost gold, on the battlefields of WWII.
Celebrating 25 years of History TV is bittersweet for me, while the channel started out with great intentions, low ratings gave way to program changes that skewed the core values of the channel. I was a big fan of the channel when it first launched and it still holds a special place in my TV heart. Maybe as it matures into its 30s the channel will go back to more History and less reality…one can only hope.
History Extra: Other TV channels that launched in 1995
- Golf Channel: launched three weeks after the history channel on 17 Jan 1995. Bought by Comcast in the mid 2000’s it is now part of the NBC sports network and still lives on as Golf Channel
- Classic Sports Channel: launched on 06 May 1995, ESPN purchased the channel in 1997 and relaunched it in 1998 as ESPN Classic, which it still is today.
The next two have an interesting history based on corporate mergers and splits…
- The WB: launched 11 Jan 1995, I remember watching lots of shows on The WB! Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Jamie Foxx show, Black Slash, Charmed, there was even an early version of Birds of Prey. After trying to change its image in the early 2000’s the channel struggled and turned off on 17 Sep 2006. But wait the story isn’t over…
- United Paramount Network (UPN) launched 16 Jan 1995, This channel also had some good shows I loved to watch. Being a Paramount owned channel it featured an all new Star Trek series, Star Trek: Voyager. It also carried Star Trek: Deep Space 9 in syndication. I watched a few other shows on UPN but not a lot. It suffered the same fate as the WB and turned off on 15 Sep 2006.
In 2006 CBS and Time Warner, which owned UPN and The WB, respectively, announced they were starting a new, joint channel called The CW, it launched the day after The WB shut down, 18 Sep 2006. The CW is still going strong today with DC Flagship shows anchoring the network.
- Outdoor Life Network (OLN): launched on 01 July 1995, it mainly focused on hunting and fishing programs. In 1999 OLN acquired the rights to air the Tour de France, back when Lance Armstrong was beginning his world dominance.* In 2005 OLN acquired the rights to air NHL games. In 2006 the channel changed its name to Versus and started airing MMA events. In 2011 it was purchased by Comcast and relaunched as NBC Sports Network (NBCSN)
*In 2013 Lance Armstrong was stripped of all victories and titles earned from 1999-2010, including his record breaking 7 straight Tour de France wins, due to blood doping
- CNNfn launched 29 Nov 1995, it focused on financial news, stock markets and business news. CNNfn never caught on and CNN struggled to find cable providers to carry the channel. The channel turned off in 2004.