Earlier this week the Times of India published a report claiming that cave paintings found in Chhattisgarh State in central India depicted extraterrestrial beings and their flying spacecraft. Now the New Indian Express has piled on with more discussion of the ancient astronaut theory. In an article published in this morning’s edition of the paper, a grammatically-challenged author (not named) summarizes the Times of India report, though with apparently yet another layer of linguistic mangling (after the original’s poor English), and then ties it to “some researchers” who are quite obviously the Ancient Aliens crew. This time, however, this paper is a bit more circumspect about the value of the ancient astronaut theory:
Unexplained aerial observations have been reported throughout history. Some were undoubtedly astronomical. The Halley’s Comet, for instance, was first recorded by Chinese astronomers in 467 BC. Mostly these were treated as supernatural portents and religious omens. Some current-day researchers have noticed similarities between religious symbols in medieval paintings and UFO reports, though the canonical and symbolic character of such images is documented by art historians placing more conventional religious interpretations on such images.
Nevertheless, the paper concludes that “scientific benefit might be gained” if NASA and its Indian counterpart would agree to evaluate the Chhattisgarh cave paintings for potential extraterrestrial influence.
Meanwhile, Cracked.com has an article on “5 Reasons that Conspiracy Theories Are Destroying the World.” In the article, Adam Wears and Sam Jackson note the extreme amounts of money conspiracy-mongers make from, essentially, lying to the public about conspiracies. They cite Glenn Beck and Alex Jones, who take in $45 million and $10 million each year respectively for telling Americans lies about pre-Columbian voyagers to America, FEMA concentration camps, Illuminati conspiracies, and other similar stories. Even David Icke, fringe of the fringe, has a net worth of £10 million ($17.1 million) on the back of his extreme claims about Reptilians.
But as the authors note, there is a nefarious undercurrent to the specific conspiracies peddled on TV, radio, and the internet:
How do you get rich doing this sort of thing? Well, if you listen to Beck's show, you'll first hear about how unseen forces are ready to cause the utter collapse of society, and then at the commercial break you'll be informed that he's selling emergency food kits for when the nukes inevitably start landing on American soil (just $9,500 and you can keep your family alive on freeze-dried rations all through the coming war! You love your family, right?). The other big advertiser is gold sellers, because that's what you're going to be using for currency once the government collapses (just don't ask why the sellers want to unload their gold in exchange for your soon-to-be useless American dollars).
It’s not just Beck, of course. Alex Jones sells health supplements to counter the effects of the fluoride conspiracy he promotes on his show. The H2 network’s advertisers cynically exploit the channel’s conspiracy-oriented programming to plug a range of similar products, including emergency preparedness kits, gold, and survival gear. The difference is that the richest conspiracy-mongers own a piece of the companies whose products they push. Jones and Beck, who operate online, can get away with essentially conspiring with themselves to develop content designed to promote their ancillary services in a way traditional broadcasters typically do not do as explicitly.
That said, I do have to point to an error in Wears’s and Jackson’s article. In discussing profits, they cite the example of the History Channel:
Just switch on the History Channel -- after shifting from history-based programming to "reality" shows (those are sarcasm quotes!), their ratings exploded thanks to a hit line-up that included shows such as Conspiracy, Ancient Aliens, and UFO Hunters. Back when it was dedicated to factual documentaries, History was the 20th most popular cable network, but since switching Hitler out for little green men, it's shot up to the Top 5. Bullshit sells.
I’m not going to deny that History went through a fringe history phase, but it was neither as popular nor as profitable as the authors suggest. The shows listed did not air together as part of the same lineup. UFO Hunters aired from 2008 to 2009 before being canceled. Ancient Aliens started as a one-off special in 2009 before being commissioned as a series in 2010. It burned bright for two seasons between 2010 and 2011, attracting more than two million weekly viewers, before History reoriented its programming toward reality shows and sent Ancient Aliens to H2, where declining ratings leveled out at around one million weekly viewers. This was still a huge improvement over H2’s 2011 average of 196,000 viewers, and obviously the reason History moved the show.
Conspiracy (more properly, Conspiracy?) aired on the History Channel in 2004—a decade ago!—and, though I do not remember it, the show seems to be one of the many mystery-mongering shows they always aired, things like History’s Mysteries, UFO Files, and other shows of that era. The network has been probing the mysteries of ancient astronauts since the 1990s—when they used to rerun parent channel A&E’s fringe programs like Ancient Mysteries, as well as syndicated fair like In Search Of…. Hmm… Apparently this is all Leonard Nimoy’s fault.
The History Channel hasn’t been the “Hitler Channel” since the 1990s, and even then they had their share of conspiracy and fringe shows. After 15 years, it’s probably time to stop lamenting the dearth of World War II documentaries.
That said, History (as the network now bills itself) has abandoned nearly all of the fringe nonsense to its sister channel H2. History itself rode to the top of the ratings heap on the back of the economic crisis, not conspiracies. Its highest rated shows are reality programs devoted to buying and selling junk from people’s basements--Pawn Stars, American Pickers—and fantasies about blue collar employment--Ax Men, Ice Road Truckers, etc. By the time the media took notice of History’s “conspiracy” programming, it had all vanished. Its last conspiracy show, Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, went off the air in 2012, right at the time that History moved Ancient Aliens to H2 and then launched its H2 companion conspiracy series, America Unearthed.
That said, there is an exception: History aired The Curse of Oak Island earlier this year. It was putatively a fringe history program but in practice was a reality show about dudes diggin’ stuff up.
Fringe material has an audience to be sure--Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed are their network’s highest-rated shows—but it isn’t big enough to catapult a network into the top five cable channels. It can, however, turn a little-watched digital network from an afterthought to a competitive channel whose viewership rivals older and more established channels. We know it must work: Discovery Networks remade the Military Channel into the American Heroes Channel and loaded the network with fringe history and conspiracy shows, and did the same with Planet Green, turning it into Destination America and giving the schedule over to monster hunting.
The problem with fringe programming is not that any one network is devoted to it, but that it appears on almost every cable channel devoted to documentaries and nonfiction programming, from Atlantis conspiracies on NatGeo to Bigfoot on Animal Planet, from ancient astronauts on H2 to Freemason-Illuminati on American Heroes. It works out to more hours of fringe programming across cable each week than there are hours in the week. When I counted a sample back in May, I found about 25-27 hours of conspiracy and fringe programming on each day. That was skewed a bit by an H2 Ancient Aliens marathon one day, but the general trend was clear: There is always some fringe show on TV somewhere. As I write this, the Smithsonian Channel (!) is showing a program about supposedly true demonic possessions.
Let’s finish today with something funny. Weird Al Yankovic has been releasing a new music video every day this week, and one of them is directly relevant to fringe topics. “Foil” is a parody of Lorde’s “Royals,” and it starts out relatively benign before taking a hilarious turn toward the Illuminati, Reptilians, and crazy anti-government conspiracies.
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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