Media Circus: All Hitler all the time

Der F

Published May 8, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

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."

By Mark Schone

Mark Schone is Salon's executive news editor.

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