Media Circus: All Hitler all the time

Der F

Topics: World War II,

andy griffith’s been in reruns for 30 years, Lucille Ball for nearly 40. Both stars have enough cultural resonance to maintain that healthy blue glow deep into the high-def future. Neither, however, can hope to match the tube time logged by Adolf Hitler.

Ever since D-Day, Nazis have been a shortcut to box office — and now cable TV — success. Years ago, The Discovery Channel and A&E discovered they could juice up their ratings with heavy doses of Hitler. By the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in 1991, the two networks combined aired at least six hours of military programming in prime time weekly — so much so that TV Guide, in 1992, derided the cable twins as collectively forming “The Hitler Channel.” Having already noted Hitler fatigue in their audience, network execs decided to retire him. The networks dug themselves out of the bunker with crime and celebrity — and as soon as footage of the Gulf War became available, its high-tech gloss drew higher ratings than Panzers anyway.

Hitler, however, is still alive, not in Argentina but on another cable network. A&E spun off the History Channel, and that’s where Adolf now makes his home. And he’s quite at home there: The History Channel airs as many as 40 hours of World War II programming weekly, and sometimes as many as 12 hours in a single day.

Why is Adolf such a durable TV star? The uncomplicated allure of evil, in part. Few symbols convey so much so quickly to a channel surfer as a swastika, and few villains have had such a perverse, magnetic pull as Hitler. Several years back, when I asked the director of research at Discovery about the volume of Hitler-centric programming on the original docu-nets, he compared Der F|hrer to his other ratings grabber: the shark. “People like sharks because they are unknown and dangerous. He’s the shark of World War II.” Yes, of course, Hitler was dangerous, but he is also very much known. Would he have such a powerful hold over so many viewers if they didn’t get such titillation from his very-well-known, and very obviously evil, deeds — if they didn’t identify a little with this particular shark?



Other reasons are less pernicious. Besides being the first good war in terms of film stock, it was also the last Good War in terms of ideology. No recent conflict can provide such a clear and satisfying narrative: We fought hard against bad guys who were notably bad, winning a definitive victory in the end. And, unlike Saddam Hussein, Hitler was no pushover. For a certain aging segment of the population, World War II is the most important thing that ever happened, a reminder of personal and national youth and purpose. A show like “War Diary” is really a scrapbook from a vivid personal past.

When the History Channel appeared in the beginning of 1995, all those thousands of hours of World War II footage gave programmers a proven means of building an attractive, albeit gray-haired, advertising base. Affluent white males between 24 and 54, a species of viewers rarely found in concentrated form, love watching shows on wars; almost any war will do — the History Channel airs programs about the Revolutionary, Civil, Korean and Vietnam wars. But they especially love World War II. The History Channel’s vice president of historical programming, the improbably named Charlie Mayday, notes that WWII series win better ratings than any other televised wars.

But we’re getting a little past the expiration date. By continuing to keep old shows about the Good War in constant rotation, the History Channel risks becoming a kind of nonfiction Nick at Nite. Network executives seem to have recognized the danger, and some things have started to change. Just as syndicated reruns of “The Honeymooners” drifted out of broadcast TV’s choicest slots after a while, retreating to later and later air times without disappearing altogether, so History’s war horses have been shoved into the creases of the schedule. “Victory at Sea” is at 4 a.m., “Battleline” is at 4:30. And Mayday assures me that the network will continue to demilitarize its schedule.

“What we’re shifting to in the fall is more of a use of (war documentaries) in early and late fringe (time slots) rather than the core of the schedule,” he explains. “We’re going to be running most of our military programming at 11 p.m. You’ll know every night you can watch it.” Mayday will experiment in prime time with a series on trains and something called “In Search of History.”

Is Hitler’s new slot opposite “Seinfeld” reruns a first step in the beginning of a nightward drift into the wee hours? Mayday acknowledges that the channel’s push to up its quotient of original programming will slightly diminish the overall total of military fare. But there hasn’t been a fundamental transformation: Indeed, Mayday tells me that several original World War II specials are scheduled for prime time next season, as well as a brand-new series called “Secrets of World War II.” “I don’t look at (this kind of programming) as a lesser form of history,” Mayday says. “I think it’s a key part, and we’re dedicated to it.”
So don’t expect World War II, or its biggest star, to fade entirely into that good late night. Don Delillo put it best in the 1985 novel “White Noise,” in an exchange between Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies, and his wife, Babette: “He was on again last night,” says Babette. “He’s always on,” answers Jack — “We couldn’t have television without him.”

Mark Schone is Salon's executive news editor.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>