History Channel Executive Boasts: Templar and Alien Conspiracy Shows "Continually Worked for Us," Will Inspire More of the Same
Last night the History channel debuted its new series about the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, Knightfall, a series designed to capitalize on the momentum generated by the network’s hit series Vikings and its core audience’s fascination with Da Vinci Code conspiracy theories. While critics offered mixed reviews of the series, many complained that the show was either dramatically inert or overly generic. Nevertheless, it is the first entry to build on Vikings to create a multipronged programming strategy designed to turn History into a full-service entertainment destination, where scripted shows provide an entry point for documentary features on the (quasi-) real history behind the story.
To promote the new direction for the network, History channel Executive Vice President for Programming Eli Lehrer spoke with Deadline about the network’s new scripted series, and in doing so, he confessed that some of the scripted series they developed, including their upcoming dramatization of the Air Force’s Project Blue Book investigation, were intended as “brand extensions” of their popular fake history shows about aliens, conspiracies, etc.
LEHRER: We’re open to any story that feels epic in scope and features iconic historical subject matter or characters. I think one of the nice things about History as a brand is we are able to use our unscripted track record to identify subjects and spaces that resonate with our viewers […] It’s part of what motivated Knightfall — we had seen the programming about the Knights Templar had continually worked for us.
Much of that sounds like business drivel, buzzwords and meaningless action phrases, but beneath the bluster did you catch the cynically awful undercurrent? Lehrer noted that the History channel consistently draws a crowd for shows about fake history, and the network doesn’t much care whether the history they show is true so long as it “resonates” with the right number of demographically desirable viewers. This is particularly egregious considering he had just finished telling deadline that “We’re looking for fact-based stories that draw from history, but that’s very broad because we have the full sweep of history to draw from.”
So they have all of human history but consistently return to the fake stuff, including the Holy Grail (Knightfall), space aliens (Blue Book), etc.? Lehrer described such subjects as “iconic subject matter.” Lehrer ought to have the courage of his convictions and admit the obvious: History caters to people who can’t tell fantasy from reality, and they happily play to their prejudices rather than try to educate them. They endlessly recycle the familiar to avoid challenging the audience, and fail to recognize that they have themselves created the “iconic” subject matter their audience recognizes. I mean, seriously: Who three decades ago would have identified the Knights Templar’s quest for the Holy Grail and the Project Blue Book investigation as “iconic” moments in history? They were minor footnotes elevated to iconic status by endless repetition on cable TV.
In sum, Lehrer admits that the History channel has turned into a feedback loop where the sensationalism it promoted in the early 2000s drew viewers whose numbers then justified continued excursions into the same subject matter, garnering more ratings and more shows on the same topics. The risk, though, is that the loop will turn into a noose since you can only recycle the same ideas so many ways before they oversaturate the market. We saw that in 2014 and 2015, when unscripted Templar and UFO series overwhelmed the airwaves across cable channels, leading to a massive collapse in ratings and the cancellation of many series. The shift to scripted versions of the same material repackages old ideas, but with the added wrinkle of freeing the network from any lingering fidelity to facts.
And lest you think that Knightfall would at least concentrate History’s love of Templar conspiracies into the realm of fiction, Lehrer promised a raft of unscripted “Knights Templar programming to go around Knightfall in the next few months.” The tail wagged the dog. Templar conspiracy theories for everyone!
I kid. The network already had a Templar conspiracy show before Knightfall. It’s called Curse of Oak Island, currently the History channel’s highest-rated unscripted show, and one of the highest rated cable shows on Tuesdays, with 3.1 million viewers this past week. As of this writing, Knightfall ratings are not yet available for comparison.
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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