Kevin Burns, the prolific Emmy-winning producer of such pseudohistorical and reality television programs as Curse of Oak Island and Ancient Aliens, died yesterday, according to social media posts from friends and colleagues. Burns was 65 years old.
Friends and colleagues alike praised his generosity and his warmth, and by all accounts, in his personal life he was a beloved figure. However, this is not an obituary of the man but an assessment of his legacy as an executive producer and a shaper of American ideas. Burns won two Emmy awards, once in primetime as part of the 2002 production team for A&E’s long-running Biography series and again in daytime for a 2003 special on 1970s movies. Typically, an obituary would celebrate the deceased’s accomplishments, but it is hard to find a lot to celebrate. Burns produced thousands of hours of television that ranged from the wretched to the mediocre.
The majority of his career was devoted to producing garbage. He oversaw dozens of bottom-feeding reality shows, including the notorious Girls Next Door for E!, which followed Hugh Hefner’s various paramours, and its two spinoffs. He produced uneven updates of Irwin Allen properties, ranging from The Time Tunnel in 2002 to Lost in Space in 2019.
As with so many bad decisions, it was George Lucas who put Burns in a position to transform the history genre because Lucas picked him to produce two Star Wars tie-in specials for History. Burns used the platform and clout to push a documentary about one of Lucas’s pet topics, their shared longstanding interest in Erich von Däniken’s ancient astronaut theory. (Lucas and Steven Spielberg had used von Däniken’s ideas in creating Indiana Jones.) And Ancient Aliens was born.
Burns was best known for his History Channel series, developed through his production company, Prometheus Entertainment. Ancient Aliens set the template, and The Curse of Oak Island followed in its wake. Together, they created (and often shared between them) a new generation of so-called “talent” devoted to lying about history for profit. Such programs, with their sub rosa promotion of Eurocentric historical narratives, Nazi-fetishism, and conspiracy theories anticipated our current era. Many of the names Burns turned into cable stars went on to promote dangerous conspiracy theories. Former Ancient Aliens cast member David Wilcock, once the third lead on the series after Giorgio Tsoukalos and David Childress, openly supports QAnon-themed conspiracies and is a plausible origin point for some of QAnon’s deceptive claims. In recent months, even series star Giorgio Tsoukalos has pushed back against some of the more extreme conspiracy theories teased by the show’s stars and actively embraced by many in its audience.
Burns’ most important innovation as a nonfiction producer was to abandon even the superficial appearance of fairness and balance that had marked the televised fringe history genre since midcentury, a holdover from an earlier era’s standards and practices. Gone were the disclaimers about speculation once found on shows like In Search of… and the presentation of mainstream views alongside conspiracy theories of earlier History Channel series like History’s Mysteries. Under Burns, History Channel shows became open propaganda for extremist views, with only a small fig leaf of phrasing unsupportable claims in the form of a question to avoid outright fabrication. Burns was unapologetic about the lack of balance. The result was to confuse and deceive viewers about the difference between truth and fantasy in a time when such distinctions became vital.
A couple of years ago, Burns confessed that his growing shared universe of speculative pseudo-history shows was never about the facts. While at times he openly ranted that the world was controlled by a cabal of Templar Freemasons and all religions were based on space alien boogeymen, he told the New York Times that Ancient Aliens was really a search for God. “It’s really a show about looking for God. Science would have you believe we are the result of nothing more than a chance assemblage of matter. The real truth is we don’t know,” he said in 2018.
A conspiracy theorist to the end, Burns had refused to shut down production on Ancient Aliens earlier this year during California’s original coronavirus shutdown order, claiming that the show’s young staff wouldn’t die from the virus and that fake history TV was an “essential” service.
Burns had an almost messianic belief that the fake history he promoted had buried within it philosophical truths that could unlock reality—a dangerous belief for someone with the eyes of millions of Americans on his work. “Ancient Aliens, to me, is not pseudoscience,” he said in 2016. “It’s an Indulgence of something I genuinely do believe, which is there is more in this universe than we can understand with our limited scientific experience and ability.” Burns, a lapsed Catholic, hated science. “It is a secular religion that wants to make you believe that we are nothing special, we are nothing but a happenstance of molecules, an accident of evolution.”
The chance assemblage of matter that had done so much damage to Americans’ understanding of history now knows exactly how special he was.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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