History Channel Bumps Ratings Disaster "Pirate Treasure" Out of Prime Time, Sees "Ancient Aliens" Ratings Fall
Are we seeing the beginning of a retrenchment for fringe history on TV? The History Channel pulled Pirate Treasure of the Knights Templar from its prime time lineup effective immediately due to the show’s disastrous ratings. Even longtime History stalwart Ancient Aliens has fallen out of the top 100 Friday cable programs. The last Ancient Aliens episode to chart in the cable ratings aired at 3:04 AM on September 4 and drew just 721,000 viewers, of whom 300,000 were in the 18-49 demographic. Presumably, the new episodes that have aired since have done worse since they did not surpass House Hunters International or afternoon Law & Order: SVU reruns. By contrast, Discovery’s Bering Sea Gold is pulling 1.7 million viewers in the same timeslot.
But to return to Pirate Treasure: There is no data on the show’s ratings because it did not crack the top 100 Saturday programs in either of its two weeks on the air. That must mean that the show drew fewer viewers than TNT’s 8 AM showing of a Law & Order rerun, which drew fewer than 200,000 viewers in the key 18-49 demographic, used to rank series.
History has moved new episodes of the show to Saturday afternoons, from 5 PM to 7 PM, which happens to be the dinner hour, and opposite college football. We already knew that Pirate Treasure was in trouble when UNESCO condemned it and History decided to burn off episodes on Saturday evenings in double-run episodes. But this no-confidence vote in the series reveals that it wasn’t just a middling burn-off but had become an active liability damaging the network’s ratings and advertising.
Because the series will now air from 5 to 7 PM, and this is the aforementioned dinner hour, not to mention when I need to give my cat his pills, I intend to review the episodes later in the evening, assuming my DVR records the show.
I wonder if the cycle of fringe history isn’t finally starting to burn out. I’ve noticed that the new wave of unscripted cable series that have found success have focused less on crazy conspiracies, lost civilizations, and aliens and more on treasure hunting. Discovery, for example, found massive ratings success with Treasure Quest: Snake Island a few months ago, and that series might be reasonably compared to Pirate Treasure in terms of how the networks tried to sell the shows, but the differences are more important.
Treasure Quest, drawing 1.58 million viewers on Friday nights, was the show that killed off History’s fringe conspiracy show Missing in Alaska (now being burned off on H2). It followed a team of colorful treasure hunters as they trekked through the Brazilian Amazon on a fruitless quest for lost Incan gold, the supposed Treasure of the Trinity. (This is the loot the Portuguese explorer Alexio Garcia amassed in the Brazilian Amazon in 1524, before being killed by Guarani; his treasure, which was mostly silver, ended up in the hands of the Guarani of Paraguay and was dispersed far and wide. Parts of it were found among the Guarani by Sebastian Cabot in his 1526 expedition.) The show devolved into a conspiracy plot in which the bulk of the alleged treasure supposedly was spirited away to the ends of the earth, with made-up clues pointing toward its season two MacGuffin—I mean, final resting place. On the surface, this doesn’t seem to be different than Pirate Treasure, in which Barry Clifford and Scott Wolter engage in a folie à deux as they unconsciously fabricate evidence for a lost Templar treasure in Renaissance-era Madagascar. But the former series cast itself as an adventure rather than an argument, and it spent time building up characters, like supermodel-anthropologist Mehgan Heaney-Grier. The latter never bothered to introduce Clifford or Wolter as characters, expected the audience to do the heavy lifting. The difference was there in the titles: Treasure Quest: Snake Island tells you that it’s an adventure focusing on a place; Pirate Treasure of the Knights Templar doesn’t even make sense unless you’re a conspiracy theorist, and it prioritizes conspiracy over fun.
In my review of the first week of Pirate Treasure, I said that History had taken the wrong lesson from the success of Curse of Oak Island, a lesson Discovery clearly learned well. I said that History wrongly concluded that audiences wanted more crazy conspiracy theories, whereas the show’s success was really based on the brotherly relationship of the main characters and the audience’s identification with them and their quest. I got pushback on that from Knights Templar super-fans, but I think the failure of Search for the Lost Giants, Missing in Alaska, Legend of the Superstition Mountains, and now Pirate Treasure despite the success of Treasure Quest, Bering Sea Gold, Jungle Gold, and their ilk suggests that I’m right. In my initial review of Oak Island back in 2014, I wrote that “This isn’t really a show about Oak Island. It’s a show about brotherly love and male bonding.” Yet somehow History decided characters should be secondary to sensation, and they paid the price.
What we can learn from this is that History would have done better to listen to me. If they were smart, instead of threatening to sue me they’d have been better off hiring me as a consultant since so far I have a better track record of identifying their disastrous decisions than they do.
But what does this mean for the $64 question? Given than once a person has appeared on cable television it becomes statistically impossible for executives not to give that person another show due to the sunk cost fallacy, does this mean that Scott Wolter will continue to have a TV career despite helming a titanic ratings disaster?
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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