The “General Audience:” A Look at The History Channel’s Website

I am going to rag on The History Channel for a bit. This is not new, or groundbreaking, and if I did not try to put a new spin on it this would probably devolve into an uninteresting rant. We know their interpretation is un-scholarly, often downright wrong and many times unethical or narrow-minded to boot. But when specifically answering the question “Which history sites have a design and interface that most effectively communicates its message and serves its audience?” – frankly reigns supreme.

The site makes effective use of new media, littering its homepage with eye-catching visuals, (inaccurate) reenactments and videos that are easy to consume and hard to stop watching. They are, in a word, interesting. The History Channel does not have a message in the same way that historians do. They do not seek to tell a truth or make a point. Frankly, and though I sound leftist saying it, they want to make a buck. Their message is “You should consume what we have to offer because it will make us more money.” 

That being said, their audience wants these easy narratives, the cool action shots and vivid portrayals of samurai, knights and (more recently) aliens. In this way, the audience has been served. The entertainment they sought has been provided by the site, and it happens to have a historical tinge. 

While, as a historian, I disagree with both of these philosophies on a fundamental level, it is hard not to appreciate how well it works. The History Channel site is well-designed and easy to navigate, bringing visitors exactly where they want to go within a few clicks of the mouse. With interesting, though false, stories posted right on the front page it is likely guests may never bother to browse through the menus unless looking for videos or articles on a particular topic (likely either the Civil War or World War II let’s face it). The site is well-maintained such that relevant content is being posted in conjunction with National Day recognition as well as popular holidays and the (oft imagined) histories behind them. As a vehicle for their regular programming it offers the opportunity to watch clips of shows on the channel, but not every episode or the whole of every episode encouraging visitors to make an account or watch their channel on TV for the whole story.

Sites and companies like this will continue to exist. As historians, the way to combat this is twofold. 1) Improve the education system such that myths like those The History Channel perpetuates are harder to stick in the collective memory and 2) engineer websites and tools for public consumption to rival the likes of corporate entities while also maintaining historical ethicacy. 

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