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.
9/28/2020 02:39:11 pm
"...a dangerous belief for someone with the eyes of millions of Americans on his work."
9/28/2020 06:58:24 pm
"Ancient Aliens" was not Burns's only show. "The Curse of Oak Island" has between 3 and 4 million weekly viewers. "Skinwalker Ranch" has between 2 and 3 million. Stretch figures from the History channel indicate that something like 60+ million people have watched an episode of one of Burns's History shows.
9/30/2020 05:41:16 pm
My brain must have been focused upon AA only. I never found COOI that offensive. It's basically a snipe\treasure hunt, or like Geraldo Rivera and Al Capone's Vault extended over multiple seasons. They did find coconut fibers. Unless that was salted like I suspect many of their other artifacts are.
9/28/2020 03:49:31 pm
For the love of god could anyone who doesnt like what was written attempt some substantive critique of Jason's criticism of Burn's career rather than simply throwing a tantrum over the fact that criticism occurred. Not gonna happen, is it?
9/28/2020 06:49:27 pm
He's getting in a lather over things that aren't important, conflating non-fiction TV and reality TV, ignoring that in the guy's industry Emmys actually *are* accomplishments, and fudging the numbers?
9/29/2020 12:21:11 pm
People here getting in a lather over things that aren't important. I'm shocked!
9/28/2020 07:17:43 pm
I also think some blame can be attached to the history channel. I am old enough to remember when the history channel actually had programs about history with real historians. But after the History channel was acquired by A & E it quickly turned into a quasi-history, quasi-reality pile of crap. I remember the first slide into the pit was "Pawn Stars". It was soon followed by others just like it and finally by "Ancient Aliens". Now the history channel has three types of programming, quasi-reality crap, un-scientific speculation about aliens, mysterious animals and conspiracies and finally shows about historical topics that are poorly researched and cheaply filmed. This history channel has become a true morass.
9/28/2020 10:49:20 pm
While I agree that the evolution of THC has been headed back towards the primordial morass, Pawn Stars actually premiered after the AA pilot did. That is a minor point though, as the trajectory of much of the mind-numbing “history” programming appears to continue in its attempt to find an audience with the lowest threshold of critical thinking ability.
Sean from Vancouver
9/29/2020 09:38:34 am
I’m old enough to remember when A&E was a top quality premium or “Tiffany” cable channel, with documentaries, interviews, fine arts broadcasts and quality made for TV movies
9/29/2020 12:38:47 pm
Ratings and revenue. How many people are going to tune into 30 minutes of experimental archaeologists using 2000BC technology to carve a limestone block compared to those who will tune into an episode about aliens using lasers and tractor beams to build the pyramids?
9/29/2020 06:20:16 pm
I'm sure you're being tongue in cheek if that's the right phrase, but the first one would be cool because it would involve time travel to or from the invention of heroin, and the second one kinda hohum because as someone pointed out here, Lincoln was never shot at except that one time.
9/30/2020 12:03:14 pm
Do you think the history channel would let a little detail like the gap between Lincoln's death and the invention of heroin get in the way of a storyline? If in fact he really died in 1865? Another episode maybe?
9/30/2020 05:32:27 pm
The only way to know for sure you're being shot at is to be hit. Exaggeration I know, but in war almost all shots miss.
10/1/2020 04:35:51 pm
Abe and his biographers have always been clear that he did not see combat. By all accounts the only gunshots that he or his buddies would have heard were from drunk militia men letting off steam. The notion that it is possible that a Kickapoo took a pot shot at Old Abe without him or anyone else knowing it and we can't prove that it didn't happen would work better for an episode of America Unearthed than a legit treatment of Lincoln's Black Hawk War experiences. To get back to the point about ratings and revenue.
10/1/2020 06:38:58 pm
As I said, the only proof that one has been shot at is a bullet in one's body. Do try to follow along, won't you? There's also zero evidence that John Connally was shot at. Yet he was hit. To paraphrase Woodward's imaginary Deep Throat, "follow the logic". "There is no evidence" = "I don't know".
10/1/2020 07:50:26 pm
They would be fascinated by your logic on a Combat Action Ribbon criterion selection board.
10/1/2020 08:34:02 pm
The Combat Action Ribbon is a Navy award. So no. Why must you be such a jock sniffer? The fights I've won are few, the fights I've lost are much more interesting. Jesus Christ, you were playing so nice. She don' mind, she don' mind, cocaine.
10/2/2020 08:29:16 am
Minute Man Obvious
10/2/2020 10:55:06 am
Doc would be better served by using the Combat Action Ribbon given that he is talking about Lincoln's service as a solder. Try using less morphine in your Soldiers Joy to clear that head.
Minute man obvious
10/2/2020 03:02:03 pm
Correction= Combat Infantry Badge rather than the Combat Action Ribbin.
10/2/2020 09:36:55 pm
Wow, you are all kinds of effed up. "Doc would be better served by using [the thing that he used]"? Remember that I'm not the one who said Lincoln wasn't shot at. Try to keep up Corky.
10/3/2020 08:06:43 am
10/3/2020 06:35:57 pm
The combat action ribbon originates in the department of the navy. Marines are part of the naval services. The coast guard or particular units can be attached to the navy in times of war. That was how coast guardsmen could earn the ribbon prior to the creation of the coast guard combat action ribbon. It is theoretically possible for soldiers or airmen to earn the combat action ribbon while attached to a marine ground unit. Many medals and ribbons are associated with a particular branch of the services but in certain circumstances it could be possible for a member of one branch to earn some medals from another branch not just the combat action ribbon. The rules of eligibility or the interpretation of the rules for most medals can differ through time. The difference between winning the medal of honor in 1865 and winning it now can be night and day.
10/5/2020 10:46:24 am
Interesting to note that Lincoln does not qualify for combat decorations as a soldier in the Black Hawk War but could qualify for his actions as a civilian in the Civil War.
10/1/2020 03:39:21 pm
I can remember that too. In fact, wasn't the History channel once joking refered to as The Hitler Channel?
9/29/2020 07:36:23 am
9/29/2020 09:31:19 am
So... it's dancing on the grave then. Poor form Jason. Though you know his Curse of Oak Island has always been offensive to me, I have to admit... Food Paradise wasn't a bad dish.
9/29/2020 03:58:58 pm
I dont think that dancing on the grave means what you think that it means.
9/29/2020 11:24:44 pm
"Verb. dance on someone's grave. To celebrate a person's death or downfall triumphantly."
9/30/2020 09:49:23 am
At least the mendacious man of many monikers isn't attempting to be a lawyer today...
9/30/2020 01:23:11 pm
Living rent free, in your head. (confirmed)
9/30/2020 04:56:39 pm
Watch it with what I nail Kent.
9/30/2020 05:36:47 pm
Panhandling on a two-way street, more like. Watch this ladies and gentlebums:
Not not jim
9/30/2020 08:58:11 pm
I don't think that mendacious means what you think that it means.
10/2/2020 12:21:46 am
I wish Kevin Burns' platform and ideas were dead, not the man
9/29/2020 11:20:00 am
Hi Jason -
9/29/2020 12:03:16 pm
Well, this does prove Colavito is not a devout Catholic at all, as he is mocking someone who just died, even if Kevin Burns was an inspiration for fringe fans everywhere, and his shows were fake reality.
9/29/2020 04:15:16 pm
It is never wrong to point out fact in the face of error and falsehood.
9/29/2020 08:46:05 pm
Do you know whether there is any truth to the rumor that Ronnie James Dio’s casket was a shoe box?
10/1/2020 10:10:36 am
Or as inappropriate as the left-wingers that call and taunt the families of service members killed in combat.
10/2/2020 04:39:24 pm
Couldn't find anything like that, at least nothing short of the immediate wake of Vitenam (and then it's hard to tell reality from exaggeration). I could find this though:
10/3/2020 08:38:40 am
I'm not clear on what your point is but John McCain was one plane away from being a North Vietnamese ace and he was an incompetent dick and should have been left behind like the hundreds of POWs he left behind. He was a large influence in the U.S.'s criminal invasion of Syria. And couldn't remember how many houses he owned. He owned seven. On the bright side, his new home state has a dry heat.
John McCain’s ghost
10/5/2020 01:00:54 pm
10/5/2020 01:27:19 pm
McCain crashed one plane because of pilot error and another because of mechanical failure. He was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Your math is wrong and your understanding of "Ace" is wrong.
Kevin Burns RIP
10/1/2020 11:45:04 am
10/4/2020 04:37:23 pm
I keep seeing A and E mentioned here, to me (and in my country) that means Accident and Emergency? But often the way it's used here doesn't seem appropriate to that. Is it short for something else I'm unaware of?
10/5/2020 10:47:47 am
Wow, this discussion veered all over the highway. Can't even track how Lincoln came into this, and can only add I found the recent show about a possible illicit Lincoln deathbed photograph turning up well done and showing the lengths an auction authenticator can go to argue for it's bona fides. I didn't find it absolutely conclusive (and, to it's credit, neither did the show claim such). I treasure an original print of a Daguerreotype of Lincoln before he adopted his beard after that famous exchange with a young girl who decried his looks and urged him to cover up his ugliness. I saw it in an antique shop on South Beach when I was child and asked my parents to buy it for me. They refused at first until the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had befriended me and accompanied us on that day's outing, urged them to do so. I couldn't quite follow his reasoning at my age (but it apparently convinced my parents), but it had something to do with Moses donning a face covering after meeting the Lord face to face. His dad was a 'Talmudic Giant', and he talked a lot like that.
10/5/2020 04:46:46 pm
10/6/2020 10:28:45 am
"I'm sure he was a Republican, his life had all the earmarks."
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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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