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.
8/13/2013 07:56:59 am
I'm not sure you can hang this squarely on conservatives. I know plenty of people that identify themselves as liberal that wholly embrace Alternative History, Aliens, and many of the various conspiracy theories. While there is some deviation between the conspiracies embraced by the extreme left and right, the unifying themes seem to be an unwillingness to engage in critical thought about anything that might disagree with their beliefs and an extreme distrust of business, academia, and government.
8/13/2013 08:05:05 am
It's certainly not simply a conservative-liberal issue. As I said, Syfy has plenty of programs with more traditionally liberal craziness, like cryptids and haunted Hollywood memorabilia. My only point is that H2 was selecting certain types of programming because they want to attract a demographic (young, male, wealthy) that also overlaps with conservative ideology and conservative paranoid conspiracies. New Age stuff, as I mentioned, tends to reinforce perceived liberal ideas about unity, peace, galactic harmony, etc.
8/13/2013 11:00:11 am
I think the challenge stems from the all too easy use of single broad-brush terms. (conservative and liberal)
8/13/2013 11:07:47 am
The problem is that pollsters aren't interested in breaking down people's beliefs based a broad range of indicators, so the numbers that I (and H2) have to work with reflect the catch-all terms "liberal" and "conservative" which are at very best proxies for general worldviews. Strictly speaking, there is no coherency in either term, and members identifying with either can hold wildly different beliefs. The point I was trying to get at was not that H2 is programming for a political party but rather than their target audience (upscale males) are more likely to hold certain beliefs and have particular worldviews that are reflected in the programming, explaining why particular types of conspiracy shows end up on that channel.
8/13/2013 11:01:57 am
There are individuals all over the fringes of the political spectrum that believe in aliens and some (not all) of this stuff. And during the 2000s, Ron Paul was able to get a lot of far-from-the-mainstream anti-war and anti-drug-war people on the liberal side of things (hard to call them liberal, impossible to call them leftists, but they aren't exactly the usual libertarians either as they'd also be on about GMO, corporations, etc.) in his coalition, though since 2008 this has fallen apart to a fair degree and things have lurched back over to the libertarian Randite right.
8/13/2013 11:07:34 am
Anti-science is also found all across the political spectrum. Anti-vaccination is one such area.....and anti-GMO is another..
8/13/2013 11:09:38 am
The difference is that you won't see too many corporate-owned cable channels devoting their schedules to anti-corporate liberal conspiracy theories the way they do anti-science, anti-academic, and anti-government conspiracies.
8/13/2013 11:16:32 am
Aren't all channels corporate owned?
8/13/2013 01:53:06 pm
Thane, I'll give you GMO. Anti-vax and other alt-med seems to be all over the political map, and I'd even say the same of anti-fluoride (while most examples I can think of tie into right-wing conspiracy theories, there are places like Portland which hit it from the other side).
8/13/2013 11:14:52 am
A potential solution....
The Other J.
8/13/2013 06:07:40 pm
Has the cable industry changed and I didn't notice? What cable companies are moving to an a la carte model (pay-per-channel) and away from the tiered model? If that's happened and I didn't know, fill me in.
8/14/2013 03:31:51 am
None have moved to that model, hence my comment that I can dream.
The Other J.
8/14/2013 08:23:50 am
8/13/2013 01:28:26 pm
It is, in the end, all about the money: give the people what they want.
8/14/2013 03:37:46 am
Does anyone remember the British program "Connections"? I think that was its title.
8/14/2013 05:31:18 am
They are just T.V. shows. Get over it already. People are going to believe what they want to. If you don't like the show or network channel then don't watch it...
8/14/2013 06:00:46 am
To which the obvious rejoinder is that if you don't like the blog post, don't comment on it. If you were moved to write about my blog post, surely you recognize why I was moved to write about cable TV.
8/14/2013 06:07:05 am
Που είναι η τουαλέτα?
8/14/2013 07:17:18 am
Down the hall to the right..
8/14/2013 07:21:53 am
Cuarto de baño! TV or the plea to stop picking apart deluded science and history?
8/14/2013 08:02:54 am
8/15/2013 07:04:35 am
I cheated with Google translator.
8/14/2013 09:24:51 am
The episodes of Secret Slang I saw were pretty good. Eventually it will run out of episodes though like how the states got their shapes. Harder to keep nonfiction churning out new episodes when you can't just make it up.
8/14/2013 10:43:41 am
Much like why Mythbusters, in its tenth season, has like three episodes per season, when it was nine in its first season? And how most of it anymore involves Hollywood science, because there just aren't enough urban myths that are testable anymore?
8/17/2013 02:07:39 pm
I think you are self rationalizing your opinion of conservatives or libertarians. These programs sell for entertainment purposes not because it builds on some anti science pro racist agenda of so called white males. I know many liberals and they as a group just as susceptible to junk science. So called climate change feeds their need to control society and central plan. The entire liberal economic paradigm is based on keynsian astrology. Yes many social conservatives have a knee jerk opposition to certain branches of science but so do liberals who won't accept people are different. Their definition of diversity is everyone has to be the same when u think about it. Besides the demographic targeted is young men, hardly social conservatives. That said given the total failure of liberal authoritarian govt...patriot act, interventionism, fiat money and bailouts, the end of our natural rights...4th amendment, I think any show challenging authority will probably do well right now. But please don't sterotype, most libertarians I know have science or engineering backgrounds along with advanced degrees usually in finance or marketing...they are not stupid. This show like ancient aliens will have its run and be gone shortly. I would honestly worry more about how the USA is going to pay the 5trillion in debt principal due this year...hint bernanke will print it way which scare the hell out of you all more than Scott Walters illusions of northern Europeans arriving in America and exploring all over the place befor columbus.
8/19/2013 11:40:06 am
"This show like ancient aliens will have its run and be gone shortly."
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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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