Yesterday was the Thanksgiving holiday, and that means that it’s a relatively quiet day for fringe history. Most of the major fringe historians tend to be Americans or Brits, and both cultures devote this day to an orgy of pre-Christmas discount shopping. I thought it would be a good time to check in on the ratings for the History Channel’s two currently airing fringe history shows, Curse of Oaks Island and Hunting Hitler. Unfortunately, due to the holiday this week’s ratings aren’t being reported until next week, but last week the two shows continued to perform on par with their averages, with Curse coming in at 2.56 million viewers (800,000 of whom are 18-49), and Hitler doing significantly worse, with just 1.66 million viewers (500,000 of whom are 18-49). Those numbers remain stubbornly unchanging, and it seems that 1.7 million is the cap on anything that History airs after Curse of Oak Island.
I can’t help but agree with Variety TV critic Brian Lowry that something is amiss: “while TV remains fascinated with history, the assumption lingers that straightforward presentations of such fare won’t appeal to the demographics that advertisers covet. Small wonder that History has been on the leading edge of those cable networks that feel compelled to stretch confining brands that are deemed too stodgy in an effort to reel in younger viewers.” Advertisers target young idiots, ill-served by schooling and suspicious of facts, and we all suffer for it.
But if you really want to get depressed about the History Channel’s insidious influence, you only need to look at one of the hosts of Hunting Hitler, Tim Kennedy, a mixed martial arts fighter for the UFC who went into the production convinced that Hitler died in 1945. “Everybody knows this. This is ridiculous, and I don’t want to waste my time with some stupid conspiracy stuff,” Kennedy told MMA Junkie. “But the more involved I got, and the more research they sent me, the more questions it raised.” Kennedy told the website that not only had producers successfully made him question history, he discovered that pursuing fringe history on TV is both fun and lucrative. Kennedy said that he had such a good time and made so much money from the series that he hopes to turn fringe history into his permanent profession and retire from mixed martial arts. “This is a blossoming career for me,” he said, adding that his family feels it is better than being punched in the face in exchange for cash.
In short: Producers convinced Kennedy of a lie, sent him on a fun working vacation, and gave him a lot of money. Of course he’s happy to become a permanent fringe historian.
I couldn’t help but be struck, though, by the coincidence of two series about alternative Hitler stories airing near simultaneously. The History Channel offers the cheaply produced, pointless conspiracies of Hunting Hitler, which posits that the Führer escaped Germany to live on in South America or elsewhere, while Amazon.com released The Man in the High Castle, a sumptuously produced alternative history drama about a victorious Axis and their occupation of America. The first season climaxes with an encounter with Hitler himself, who is apparently a huge fan of the Nazi version of the History Channel, since he spends his days watching conspiracy theory films about “what might have been” in various alternate realities.
I enjoyed The Man in the High Castle quite a bit, particularly in the careful thought that went into the exquisite production design, which carefully visualizes the aesthetics of occupation, from flags and banners right down to lapel pins and consumer goods. I own a copy of the book Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, and I have always been interested in how visual design is used to communicate nonverbal messages. It’s one of the reasons I harp on the production design of fringe history shows. The drama in High Castle, however, was a bit inert for the first five episodes, really only coming together as a compelling narrative in the second half of the ten-episode series. By the end, though, it really came together. I know that a lot of Philip K. Dick fans are upset by the changes from the novel the series is loosely inspired by, but I’m not. An adaptation should find something new to say about the material, or else there isn’t much point of adapting it at all—just read the book.
Anyway, if the History Channel had really wanted to find a new approach to Hitler, imagine how much prestige they might have gotten had High Castle aired on their network instead of Hunting Hitler. (They already air the drama Vikings, so it’s hardly a stretch.) In a better world, they might follow each episode with a Talking Dead-style talk show in which historians discuss the actual history behind the series and create a learning opportunity that Amazon can’t provide. There is precedent: History used to do just such a thing with its old Movies in Time series with Sander Vanocur. Instead, the History Channel has itself become like the Hitler of the Man in the High Castle by collecting films of histories that never were—but somewhat reversed, forcing all of us to watch rather than hiding them away.
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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