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The men who built the History Channel

October 28, 2012
By WES BURNS - Copy Editor ( , Times-Republican

Once, while waiting to speak with Chuck D. of Public Enemy fame, I spoke with a homeless man about the nature of The History Channel.

True story.

Mr. D. had just finished speaking at my alma matter, Iowa State University, where he discussed a wide range of topics including modern race relations in the United States, the nature of popular music, and what is was like to be roommates with Flava Flav.

So myself and some collegiate chums were waiting after the speaking engagement to get Chuck D. to sign our copies of his book, which was cosentiently for sale right outside the auditorium.

Well, one of us bought the book. The rest of us were stealing Raman to stay alive, therefore possessing no money for non-required texts.

While we stood in line a man none of us knew approached; his ease of conversation and apprehension at the sight of security left this casual observer with the distinct feeling he was homeless.

Our new friend quickly began to quiz us about our presence, where we were from, and what our majors were.

Since we had some time to kill in a line moving at the pace of an understaffed DMV we talked for a while. When he asked us our majors one friend answered "engineering," one answered "I don't know yet," and I, foolishly, answered "history."

"History?" our new friend asked. "History? History Channel ... that ain't nothing but Hitler!"

Oh, those were the days, weren't they?

Not the "standing in line talking to a homeless guy about your academic goals" days.

Not the "how does this homeless guy have such a grasp on the content of a cable network?" days, either.

No, the days when the once glorious History Channel focused mostly on Hitler and the ways in which Hitler lost.

Or, as it is also known, history.

Those days are long gone now, aren't they? What once was a channel were you could tune in at any random time to find out everything there is to know about World War II era bomber planes or the construction of Hadrian's Wall.

Now the viewing public is treated to "UFO Hunters," "Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy," and "Sliced," which is a show where objects that are not normally sliced in half are sliced in half.

As TV shifted more and more towards so called "reality" TV, the History Channel, or simply History as they are now known, was more than happy to drift slowly with the current, like a swimmer caught in a riptide.

So now History gives us "Swamp People," "Ice Road Truckers," and "Ax Men." And even these shows have a tangental association with history (swamps are pretty old, logging is an old profession), the last step before dropping off the cliff was "Ancient Aliens," a show designed to take any kind of historical fact and replace it with speculation about just how many aliens DID the Mayans meet before predicting the end of the world?

But, perhaps there is a small light at the end of the tunnel.

Just as ... History ... drifted with the rise of reality TV, so too might they drift again with that most welcome of TV fads: good TV.

Shows like "Breaking Bad," "The Wire," and "Mad Men" have shown that people are willing to watch a TV show with high quality production values and complex characters.

And I got a chance to see History's attempt at such TV of quality, the new miniseries "The Men Who Built America."

OK, so the show is mostly clips of guys dressed up like John D. Rockefeller and Corneilius Vanderbilt walking slowly along side trains, while a narrator describes just how many millions of dollars they burnt trying to take each other down. But they are excellently filmed reenactments, a sharp contrast to the old shows of the History Channel where it seems the Roman Army was always fighting on the same field as the Battle of Antietam, right between the O.K. Corral and Hitler's bunker.

Alright, the reenactments are good, what about the historians? All History shows pair their reenactments with clips to men or women of dubious credit, usually saying something like "we don't know if aliens helped Hitler build his doomsday machine, but if they did it would have happened exactly like this!"

In a bold move, "The Men Who Built America" has no historians. A couple biographers, sure, but the rest of the speakers are actual business men and women; guys like Jack Welch, Steve Wozniak and human/sasquatch hybrid Marc Cuban. And they don't talk about the history of Andrew Carnegie, they talk about how business is still pretty much the same today as it was back then, the same ruthless game of power being played by people with no care for the lives their actions may effect.

So, well-made reenactments paired with real world implications, as seen by contemporary examples of historical figures? Congratulations History, you just may be on the road to redemption.

What's coming on next?

A marathon of "Mountain Men?"

It's a long road.


Copy Editor Wes Burns is a Sunday columnist. The views expressed in this column are personal views of the writer and don't necessarily reflect the views of the T-R. Contact Wes Burns at 641-753-6611 or



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