A+E Networks promoted Paul Cabana to a new position as vice president in charge of programming at the H2 network, according to a press release issued yesterday. A+E Networks said that the promotion was due to the phenomenal success of the H2 network on the back of conspiracy-oriented series, including America Unearthed, Ancient Aliens, and America’s Book of Secrets. (Disclosure: two of those shows attacked me by name, and A+E tried to sue me over the other one.) Here’s what the press release had to say:
In the 18 months that Cabana has led H2, the network has grown more than 60 percent and become the number one emerging ad-supported cable network, featuring such series as America Unearthed, Secret Slang and America's Book of Secrets. Cabana also helped drive revenue growth, with sales revenue more than doubling since H2's launch. The network is poised for even more growth, with 16 original series rolling out in 2014.
Translation: Conspiracy theories attract a big enough market niche to double profits; hence: more conspiracies, more Sinclair-Templar craziness, and wilder pseudo-historical idiocy.
Already the network broadcasts Haunted History, Countdown to Apocalypse, and other programs targeted at uncritical thinkers with a magical worldview, and more is to come. Another new show, Target Earth, premiering later this month, plans to explore how aliens would take over the world by targeting our infrastructure. They also have embraced more traditional paranoia with shows like The Secret World of Gold, which sought to investigate such conservative bugaboos as Nazi gold, investing in gold, and the role of gold in the mysterious world of high finance. (Glenn Beck, a believer in prehistoric white colonization of America, was instrumental in promoting gold investing to conservatives worried about the collapse of civilization.)
The trouble, of course, is that few people in the viewing audience consider this wide-scale conspiracy-mongering as a whole because the audiences for these various shows probably have relatively little overlap, and those that do watch multiple conspiracy shows are likely to believe they are the truth and therefore not conspiracies.
Among those who watch just a sampling of H2 programs, this reaction from Rock and Roll Magazine just yesterday is fairly typical. I am translating from the Spanish, though a few of the words didn’t quite make sense to me and must be colloquial usages I’m not familiar with:
A character like Giorgio A. Tsoukalos and his interventions [ideas?] are the trippiest I’ve seen in a long time, and he makes the presence of experts in the field of UFOs like Erich von Däniken pass close to being mere anecdote [i.e., he overshadows them] because this Tsoukalos, editor of a publication called "Legendary Times Magazine," is quite a media discovery, moving like a fish in water in front of the camera. And what to say of his marvelous persona as a mad genius, so appropriate for someone like him? I dare say that without his presence "Ancient Aliens" would lose much of its interest. We must also recognize that each episode is so well spun that things seem to make all the sense in the world ... for uncritical minds, certainly. So I prefer to enjoy it without overly questioning some things, because in the end it is no more than just another TV show.
I like the Spanish name of Ancient Aliens better, Generación alien, which both recalls extraterrestrial genesis and the generation of young people who have adopted ancient astronautics.
The point, though, is that the above author is wrong, and such broadcasts are not “just another TV show” but rather an important influence that contributes to how the public views history.
According to research by Ken Feder, at the height of Erich von Däniken’s media celebrity, 1 in 4 college students claimed to believe in ancient aliens, something that would have been impossible a decade earlier when such ideas were not widely disseminated. Media coverage produced belief. When media attention declined and ancient astronauts were no longer a regular feature of network television or national magazines, the number of believers fell to just 10% by the early 2000s. This was prior to the 2009 launch of Ancient Aliens, and I’d very much like to know how the situation has changed over the past four years. We know from an April voter survey by Public Policy Polling that 1 in 5 voters believes in a government conspiracy to hide UFO truths, 1 in 4 believes the Freemasons are conspiring to take over the American government, and as many as 4% of voters claim to believe in shape-shifting alien lizards.
The same survey found that conservatives were nearly 50% more likely than liberals to believe in cover-ups of prehistoric or historic alien encounters, and conservatives were also much more likely than liberals to believe in Freemason conspiracies and the New World Order. (The poll did not specify which conspiracies liberals preferred, and I do not know why.) If those topics sound familiar, it’s because they are also the same topics covered by Ancient Aliens, America Unearthed, and America’s Book of Secrets on H2.
Now check out how the demographics targeted by the H2 network also align with the audience for conservative ideology and conservative conspiracy theories:
More Americans describe themselves as conservative (40%) than liberals (21%) or moderates (35%), with men more likely to be conservative than women by a significant margin. If we can take party votes as a rough proxy for ideology, in 2012, men favored the Republican candidate (54% for Romney to 46% for Obama), while women favored the Democrat (56% for Obama to 44% for Romney). H2 targets men, who make up 65% of their audience.
Among conservatives and Republicans, a greater number make more than $75,000 per year (34%) than among Democrats and liberals (29%). Conservatives have significantly fewer poor people in their group (19%) than liberals (29%). H2’s audience is less than 30% composed of people making above $75,000, but H2 officials previously indicated that they want to attract more viewers in that income bracket.
There is one area where H2’s interests and conservative demographics do not at first seem to align. Young people (of both genders) under 29 are evenly split between conservative (28%) and liberal (28%). At first this would seem to lack an alignment with H2’s target audience of men 18-54. However, if we look at the next bracket up, 30-49, we find significantly more conservatism (40%) than liberalism (21%). So, these numbers clearly suggest that even among men under 54, there are significantly more conservatives than liberals, and moderates don’t count because they can be assumed to be willing to watch programming for one or both extremes.
Therefore, when we put the numbers together, we see a clear rationale for H2’s programming decisions: Rich men are conservative (and also white—87% of Republicans are white), and conservatives are much more likely to believe in or express interest in certain conspiracy theories that just happen to be on H2. This is why H2 is quickly filling its schedule with wall-to-wall anti-government paranoia and programming that (consciously or not) perpetuates old Eurocentric, imperialist, and colonialist narratives. They are giving a certain slice of the public what they think that demographic wants to hear. (See also: Glenn Beck.)
Compare that, by contrast, with Syfy’s audience. The competing NBCUniversal network is nearly evenly split between men (52%) and women (48%), but also has young viewers (64% under 54, with 25% under 34) and wealthy ones (31% above $75,000). (NBCUniversal used to own a partial stake in A+E Networks but sold it last year.) The gender split and youth bias suggests a less conservative audience, and the conspiracy programs on that network reflect a much less conservative type of paranormal/alternative interest. (It’s debatable whether this is due to the apocryphal “liberal media bias” selecting for a liberal audience or whether liberal audiences gravitate toward programs that meet their expectations.) Syfy’s paranormal and conspiracy shows tend to focus on ghosts and cryptids—which apparently lack political overtones—but even their forays into UFOs focus on personal narratives, a narrative technique favored by female viewers also seen in other shows. (This isn’t a stereotype but rather market research. I didn’t make women say that and can’t change the social factors responsible for that.) Thus, Destination Truth, Paranormal Witness, Haunted Collector, etc. are about characters and narratives rather than facts. (Destination Truth averages about 3 minutes of fact per half-hour story, if my anecdotal viewing counts for anything.) Even the shows that approach closest to the H2 style, like Joe Rogan Questions Everything, come across as fact-free trifles because they are more interested in the people obsessing over conspiracies than the conspiracies themselves. I tried watching Joe Rogan, but it was so drawn out and such an excuse for doubling up on his podcast for extra cash that I gave up after two episodes.
That’s not to say that there is a strict political agenda at work at either network, or that every program conforms to a specific template. Syfy has its share of anti-government paranoia, especially in earlier years when UFO conspiracy programming was more popular. H2’s shows, while discussing topics of special interest to conservative conspiracy theorists, present New Age views ranging from worshiping aliens as gods to hunting for Jesus’ descendants that would make traditionalists’ heads explode. They also produce knockoffs of other channels’ popular shows, included the Haunted History show aping Syfy’s offerings. It is instead the general orientation that the target demographics seem to dictate. I’ve previously discussed how Destination America is creating paranormal programming designed to appeal to rural viewers and confirm their life experiences. Demographics need not be explicitly political, just a general orientation in a given direction.
The bottom line: Expect more paranoid conspiracy-mongering from the A+E Networks, at least until the demographics change.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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