When History Becomes Hysteria

When History Becomes Hysteria

When the editors of Eroico.org asked me to start writing about the wonderful state of television programming, I first thought they either secretly hated me and wanted me to quit, or they were selling out by starting to include a column about television like all other major sites.

I’m still unclear as to the real reason (meaning I’m leaning toward the former) but I relish the opportunity to comment on the dominant cultural medium of our time, the thing that simultaneously informs and desensitizes us to everything under the sun. Where would we be without television? We watched a man land on the moon with it, saw the reality of the Vietnam War, the attempted assassination of a president, and several seasons of “Designing Women.” And now with satellite services and cable companies growing new tentacles, we have an expanding banquet of programs to watch when we want to watch them. It’s all about the service, baby!

Now, if you think I’m going to trot out the original observation that there’s 500 channels to watch and nothing on, you’re kinda right. Like most people, no matter how many channels I get with my cable service, I have a small core of channels that I watch religiously. I don’t care about Nickelodeon or its VH-1-type spinoff TVLand, or anything on MTV (God, how I gave up on that crud years ago). I get my fix with crime shows like “The New Detectives,” “Cold Case Files,” “American Justice,” and “Forensic Files.” Even if I don’t watch watch them, I love to hear the stories in the background while I’m doing other work, secure in the knowledge that a crime will be solved in 30 minutes and the villain brought to justice.

But I’m not here to write about those shows. Instead, I have to mention one of my favorite networks, The History Channel, which for a long time was dubbed The Hitler Channel because of constant programming about the World War II and Germany. And while I love hearing about the exploits about the Nazis and their rampage across Europe as much as the next person, there was only so much genocide an individual can take before realizing the whole programming was slightly depressing. So for a long while, I satisfied my need to sit in front of a television for extended periods of time with those aforementioned crime shows.

Now, it’s been long enough for me to realize that with all this increased viewership and the fragmenting of traditional audiences, cable channels were going to have to change their formats in order to keep up. When you read or hear phrases like that, it’s accompanied by a reference to the 18-34 demographic. That’s shorthand for young males, in general, and that means you can expect programming to start becoming shorter, sexier and stupider. Television is a business and that business is to make money, so you need to make programs that attract a wide audience, keep them coming back so you can charge large advertising rates that advertisers are willing to pay to get their products into your home. Sounds simple enough, right?

Bearing that in mind, a roster of new programs has made its way to The History Channel, and overall, the shows are engaging, well-done and want to be entertaining as well as informative. Who says history can’t be fun?

However, the issue is that there’s an undercurrent of Irwin Allen-type narrative to many of these programs: they all seem to be hinging on the theme of impending doom. And where there’s doom, there’s the distinct possibility of things blowing up and scores of people dying horrible, painful deaths. The show “Megadisasters” is all about the troubles awaiting humanity, and narrated almost with unrestrained glee. I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t try to learn about potential catastrophes or ignore the ones that have occurred. Many of The History Channel’s shows that talk about bad things happening sound like they’re attempting to inform us as to why so many people died during the eruption of Krakatoa (and how it might happen again) because of a non-existent warning system or poor understanding of just how powerful a volcanic explosion can be. At the same time, all the shows in this particular series are delivered with a sense of urgency that is disproportionate to the possibility of it happening at all.

Take the show about what happens to the Earth if gamma rays from a quasar were to strike it. Now, this is something we have absolutely no defense against: there are no warnings, no rumblings of the ground or the flight of animals. Yet The History Channel pumps up the (very remote) possibility of such a disaster happening into a full-fledged panic session. The implication is that it will happen, and boy oh boy, the body count will be in the millions. I don’t deny the need to see how our cities and societies can cope with problems of a magnitude like a gamma ray burst stripping out most of our atmosphere, but with the panicky delivery and presentation, you’d think that it’s going to happen before the credits start to roll. I suspect that whatever science or knowledge is dropped in here is getting lost in the overall quick editing to impress us with mayhem.

There’s a distinct difference in talking about the outcomes of a specific event and hyping up the carnage as a way to entertain you because our efforts are always so futile. It’s not the threat of violence or destruction that makes me want to watch these shows, but the impression that those aspects are the really cool parts is what I find to border on fear-mongering. What exactly do we learn from that?

Even a more “scientific” show like “The Universe,” (which I think is extremely well done) isn’t immune from speculating on what improbable events might end our lives. If the goal of the program was to tell us how dangerous and unforgiving space really is, I like it, I understand it: it makes life on Earth even more precious. But so often, I’ve seen more computer-generated graphics of the Earth boiling over, exploding and freezing than I care to see. I feel less educated and more like a voyeur into the extinction of mankind. And the fun doesn’t stop with that program. The History Channel seems hell bent on programming about weird things that have little to do with history or even science: will someone explain “MonsterQuest” to me. Please? And don’t even get me started with “UFO Hunters,” whose very premise is ludicrous and disturbing: treating personal beliefs as a basis for scientific investigation and finding no problem with the inherent contradiction. That show reminds me of the absolutely idiotic “Ghost Hunters” on the SciFi Channel, wherein an entire cadre of ghostbusters use words like “evidence” and “investigation” to legitimize what is fundamentally not scientific.

It bothers me that The History Channel has figured that the way to get advertisers is to mix science with disaster and the threat of wide-scale destruction as entertainment. We’re not gleaning anything at all, but learning how to panic or worse, secretly getting turned on over disaster. I wish the hysteria would end and we’d get some real history back on the air, even if it means shows about Nazis. Now that’s a disaster we can learn from to prevent from happening again.