Cable television promised so much and yet delivered so little. Will the Internet do the same?
One of the unlikely success stories of the Internet was the rise of The History Guy. His story is pretty interesting - he lost his job and was sort of flailing around for something to do, and decided to make YouTube videos about historical events. One of them went "viral" - which is key to succeeding online - and he put more effort into it. A check arrived for a few hundred dollars. Then another. Before long, it was paying the mortgage on his house. Not long after that, he was making a living at it.
The topics he covers are all over the map - from natural disasters to military engagements to even things like Syracuse Salt Potatoes (it is a thing, just not an Albany thing). His videos are pretty compelling, but what sets him apart are his story-telling abilities. He tells a story with each episode, and isn't afraid to give us a lot of details and facts. The accompanying video appears to be pulled from internet sources and online archives, and usually doesn't have accompanying audio - just his voice, which to be fair, is sometimes a bit grating. But as NPR has taught us, to be successful in show business, it pays to have an unusual voice, or better yet, a speech impediment.
Now take "The History Channel" - please! It started out with a lot of historical documentaries, but quickly devolved into click-bait eye-candy. And it is so peppered with ads (nearly 50% of airtime it seems!) that half the show comprises a "recap" of what was said before the previous commercial break.
And the topics? Anything, it seems, but history. Most of the shows are of the "reality" variety, usually following the lives of blue-collar workers in unusual jobs, such as "Ice Road Trucking." And like most reality shows, the topic becomes more about the interaction of the actors, than it is about the subject at hand. I am not sure why "Swamp People" is considered "History" but there you have it.
Of course, like most cable channels, The History Channel has morphed from its roots. Just as MTV no longer plays music videos (but alas, has also succumbed to "reality" television) or the Discovery Channel, which went from science to the paranormal, almost overnight. Many have changed their names or resorted to using their initials instead. "Arts and Entertainment" network, which promised to bring highbrow content to cable, changed its name to "A&E" and devolved into - you guessed it - reality television and docudrama.
It seems these corporations that buy up media empires routinely reduce them to shit. AM radio devolved into a top-40 format, so people fled to FM radio, which was the domain of classical music, public radio, and album-oriented rock - but not for long. FM became the new top-40 domain, with even classical music stations resorting to "Performance Today" - the Casey Kasem version of classical music. And public radio? Now syndicated crap and not local at all. The smoldering wreckage of AM radio became the latest abomination - talk radio.
Television didn't fare much better. During the so-called golden age of Television we only had three channels to choose from, and much of the material, in retrospect, appears to be almost infantile in nature. They had to aim for the lowest common denominator and they often hit their target. 500 channels of cable television promised to bring us a variety of fare for all ages, demographics, and levels of intellect. However it seems that rather than providing this, cable television is provided us with 500 channels of more of the same.
In addition, the basic cable channels have so many advertisements on them as to make them toxic. Just as the national radio networks have destroyed AM and FM radio, the cable companies and their content providers have made cable television so toxic that hardly anyone wants to watch it anymore. Is no wonder that people are unplugging from traditional cable television and moving on to streaming. Streaming at least allows you to see what you want to see and when you want to see it. And since there are an infinite number of streaming channels, there is always something for every interest and intellect online.
Of course, The History Guy has another advantage over cable television. Television shows have to be edited to fit a particular time slot. Thus, if they don't have a lot of material, they have to pad it out to fit the length of the program. Conversely, if they have too much material, they have to cut away quite a lot of relevant bits in order to make it fit the space available. The History Guy, like most online videos, can create a video of whatever length he deems necessary to cover the subject - although realistically, most are under 25 minutes. So a short subject can be as little as 5 minutes, or a detailed investigation maybe as long as an hour. This is the flexibility that streaming gives us, that television did not.
Of course, we are still faced with the fundamental problem that has faced newspapers, radio, television, cable television, and the Internet today - the lowest common denominator. It isn't profitable to make a streaming channel - even a home-made YouTube channel - unless you have a critical mass of viewers. And to get that critical mass, you often have to dumb it down a bit. So the idea that "highbrow" entertainment or educational programs will flourish on the Internet is flawed. Have you seen what floats to the top of the Internet Septic Tank lately? Yea, that.
I am not saying The History Guy is high-brow or low-brow. He does simplify topics to fit into the format of the show, and half the appeal is his personality and enthusiasm for the subject (despite his voice). There are other "channels" out there on YouTube trying to leverage off his success. Often these are put up by non-English speaking individuals, who put up stock photos, accompanied by a robotic voice (often with a British accent) reading text. One fellow, who is from the States, does a "what ever happened to...." show about various celebrities, where he puts up stock photos of the celebrity in question and then reads, word for word, their Wikipedia entry. I know this, as I looked up the entry and was able to read along with it.
So there is also a lot of garbage content filling up the Internet as well. But it is nice to see the promise of the Internet is, to some extent, still alive. A solo content provider can, with a little effort, become popular and even famous, and make at least a modest living from their content.
The only downside to this is that sometimes these content creators have a story arc - they become wildly popular, peak, and then slowly become less popular - and end up scrambling trying to recreate the magic, which never happens.
I hope that doesn't happen to The History Guy! But of course, all good things do come to an end, eventually.