According to once and future TV host Scott Wolter, the new season of America Unearthed will debut on May 28 on the Travel Channel. The History Channel announced that the new season of Ancient Aliens will debut three days later, on May 31. The two shows used to air together on the H2 network back in 2012, so it’s almost like we’ve gone back in time and it’s 2012 all over again.
As part of History’s launch of Ancient Aliens, they’ve been billing this spring’s season as the show’s tenth anniversary. I was surprised to see that I missed the series’ actual tenth anniversary, which occurred to little or no fanfare back in March. The two-hour pilot for Ancient Aliens—the one that put my name on screen in blood-red letters over ominous music—aired in March 2009 and launched one of History’s most enduring franchises, helping to transform the network from the so-called “Hitler Channel” to a network devoted largely to conspiracy theories and reality TV shows. Today, it has added hyper-masculine dramas to its lineup, but the long shadow of Ancient Aliens can be felt across the schedule, from the network’s top reality series, The Curse of Oak Island, to drama series like Project Blue Book, and of course the endless parade of Ancient Aliens knockoffs that have come and gone over the years.
This was a surprising development since, when the show came to air, it at first appeared to be just another wacky cable special about space aliens, not substantively different than previous History Channel shows about the old 1970s ideas of Erich von Däniken, like the History’s Mysteries episode on ancient astronauts which was in heavily rotation for years prior to Ancient Aliens, or A&E’s Ancient Mysteries episodes on the same that reran regularly on the network. But something struck a cord with audiences, whether it was the collection of colorful personalities, the paranoid undercurrents, or the relatively more sophisticated presentation, with better graphics and more dramatic stock footage of ancient artifacts and sites. Whatever the cause, audiences reacted differently to this version than previous ones, paving the way for year after year of recycled claims about prehistoric space aliens.
So what does Ancient Aliens have to show for its ten years of seeking the “truth” about aliens?
After a decade of searching, they have, of course, found no aliens. Nor have they found a single piece of incontrovertible evidence of space aliens having visited the Earth. For its entire run, the show has made use of demonstrably false claims, mistranslated ancient texts, distorted science, and outright fabrications to create an argument based primarily on emotional instead of logical proof. At that level, the show has utterly failed in its stated purpose of connecting viewers to space aliens, though it has brilliantly strung out the quest for proof for ten years, slowly shifting from the hunt for actual space aliens on Earth to a religious search for a New Age neo-pagan divine. Today, the show is half a New Age 700 Club and half an all-purpose collection of weird science. The aliens are now mostly an afterthought.
Ancient Aliens has succeeded, however, beyond even its wildest dreams in mainstreaming irrational thinking and conspiratorial fantasy. There have always been TV shows with sensational claims about ancient astronauts. NBC in the 1970s and ABC in the 1990s both ran adaptations of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, for example. But never before had there been such a sustained series devoted entirely to promoting von Däniken’s shopworn secondhand ideas with the single-minded focus of a Leni Riefenstahl documentary. The constant repetition both within episodes and across episodes and seasons of the same few ideas served the same purpose as propaganda, where repetition is a key element in gaining audience acceptance. Propaganda also relies on symbolism, and Ancient Aliens relies on symbols ranging from the Columbian “flyer” lapel pin to Giorgio Tsoukalos’s hair to the show’s distinctive logo to create an emotional world where the impossible becomes probable and feelings replace thoughts. Through its hammering home of a limited range of themes and ideas on a show that is outwardly designed to look like any other talking head historical documentary, and its broadcast on a network that had previously had a reputation for broadcasting programs with legitimate (if often sensational) historical themes, Ancient Aliens leveraged the power of television for perverse ends, and succeeded in developing a loyal, if not always large, audience of fans.
But its reach has always been greater than its Nielsen numbers suggest. While only between two and three million Americans watched the series at its height (down to just half that number today), the History Channel estimates that as many as one-fourth of all Americans have watched all or part of an Ancient Aliens episode over the course of its run. As a lifestyle brand, Ancient Aliens has spawned a lucrative convention series, Alien Con, knockoff conventions and speaking engagements featuring the show’s stars, as well as a line of merchandise. Perhaps indicative of the show’s true appeal, its companion books have failed to move the publishing needle, and nearly all of its “intellectual” heft occurs in public speaking venues rather than in any sort of print publication. The show’s celebrity following is legion, ranging from Katy Perry and Aaron Rogers to its most dedicated acolyte, Megan Fox, who launched her own knockoff show on the Travel Channel in imitation of her Ancient Aliens heroes.
So how can we evaluate Ancient Aliens ten years out? When we compare 2009 to 2019, we see a much greater number of Americans who believe in the ancient astronaut theory. The Chapman University annual survey of American fears provides some information about the growth of belief. It found that belief in the ancient astronaut theory grew from 20% in 2015 to 41% in 2018. While there is reason to suspect the numbers aren’t entirely reliable, the trend is undeniably true, for the numbers mirror other surveys that have provided snapshots of belief. Before Ancient Aliens, the ancient astronaut theory was a wacky curiosity and had been since the heyday of Erich von Däniken in the 1970s. Since Ancient Aliens, the ancient astronaut theory has become if not quite a mainstream idea then one that is widely discussed and disseminated across the respectable news media. Even in the negative, every time reporters open an article by saying that an archaeological discovery was not due to aliens, it reveals the growing assumption that the public defaults to space aliens.
Like any good propaganda, Ancient Aliens has remade the world in its own image with “truths” that exist independent of facts. Ancient Aliens did not create the conditions that led to its success, but because a show about ancient astronauts came to air at the right time, it shaped the public understanding of archaeology in science in ways that no one could have anticipated in 2009.
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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