PBS jumps aboard the reality ‘actioner’ bandwagon with ‘Carrier’

[25 April 2008]

By Diane Werts

Newsday (MCT)

“Our blood runs about a thousand miles an hour - you ready?”

This TV sound bite comes from:

A. A wrestling match.

B. An action movie.

C. A reality show.

D. A PBS documentary.

You know how this works. It’s gotta be D. The line gets growled during this week’s 10-hour public-TV miniseries “Carrier” by one of the U.S.S. Nimitz crew with whom filmmakers spent six months embedded during the aircraft carrier’s deployment to Iraq.

Airtimes for producer Thom Beers’ current docuseries (check cable on-demand menus, too): “Ax Men” (History, Sunday at 10 p.m.) “America’s Port” (NatGeo, Monday at 10 p.m.) “Verminators” (Discovery, Monday at 10 p.m.) “Raw Nature” (Animal Planet, Tuesday at 8 p.m.) “Deadliest Catch” (Discovery, Tuesday at 9 p.m.) Among Beers’ previous series (many on DVD): “Monster Garage” (Discovery, 2002) “Biker Build-off” (Discovery, 2002) “BIG!” (Discovery, 2004) “Ballroom Bootcamp” (TLC, 2005) “Lobster Wars” (Discovery, 2007) “Tattoo Wars” (TLC, 2007) “Ocean Force” (truTV, 2007) “Twister Sisters” (WE, 2007) “Ice Road Truckers” (History, 2007)

But C wouldn’t have been a bad bet, either. Reality TV - unscripted TV, whatever you call it - has splintered now into a half-dozen subgenres. Competitions. Makeovers. Dating shows. Celebreality. Docusoaps.

And suddenly, the hottest of them all - high-stakes high-tension actioners. Ordinary men battling the unforgiving forces of nature. Pushing themselves, their colleagues, their machinery past the breaking point. Toiling to tame the frontier, achieve the improbable, and - because we’re capitalists - make big bucks.

“Deadliest Catch,” “Ice Road Truckers” and “Ax Men” are colossal cable hits, filmed like documentaries, on unforgiving landscapes, then edited into high-velocity character sagas, like edgy Westerns for a new generation. They’re posting huge ratings among men at a time the broadcast networks lean toward “Grey’s Anatomy” female appeal.

So now those same networks want into the game. NBC just announced two unscripted actioners for next season - “America’s Toughest Jobs” and “Shark Taggers” - and even public TV is going for the gusto. “Carrier” dispenses with narration, employing a bluesy theme song and a rock/country/hip-hop soundtrack, along with quick-cut visuals and first-person testimony: “If I don’t do what I do and a wire snaps, I get chopped in half.”

Just don’t call these “reality” shows. “We’re not in the business of `reality,’” insists Nancy Dubuc, executive vice president and general manager of History, which recently streamlined its name by dropping “channel.” Its preferred term for such hits as “Ax Men” is “verite documentary,” Dubuc says, because they depict “what these men do every day to make history.” History coined its own American Originals category - “a new genre celebrating the frontier spirit,” as proclaimed in splashy ads featuring scowling tough guys.

No mushy romance or talk-talk-talk here. These guys DO. They ACT. They are MEN.

“I tell you what. This is the thing,” begins the adrenaline rush that is Thom Beers (origprod.com), kingpin producer of the genre, with passion pumping over the phone like a monster wave crashing a “Deadliest Catch” crab boat. With hits such as Discovery’s “Catch” (that channel’s highest-rated series) and History’s “Truckers” (ditto), with 14 series now in the works across nine channels, he adds, “Action movies have gone away. What are we looking at in the world of men? Big corporate leaders out there making $30 million in stock options and bonuses when their company’s tanking and the common man is taking it in the shorts? So who’s our hero?”

He’s the working stiff taking out his crab boat, knowing he might die, might pummel his grating crewmates, or might land a big-money catch. He’s the trucker steering his 18-wheeler over frozen lakes to cash in during a tight weather window. He’s the pest slayer of “Verminators,” Beers’ newest Discovery series. “Yeah, man, these guys are awesome!” enthuses the 56-year-old former documentary chief for Ted Turner’s cable empire. “Their life’s mission is to destroy every bit of pestilence on the planet, to stop rats and mice from taking over the world.”

“I can tell you women won’t be watching that. We just want it done,” says TV analyst Shari Anne Brill, senior vice president, director of programming, Carat media agency. But Brill knows these shows lure traditionally hard-to-reach male viewers. “It’s that sense of adventure and the outdoors.” They also “youthify” their networks, she says, attracting the young adults many advertisers seek.

The generation raised on Red Bull and video games likes being immersed in accelerated, all-encompassing experiences. “We’re responding to a culture that wants to hear it from the source, not from some `expert,’” says History’s Dubuc. “This is a culture that wants to learn for themselves.”

Dubuc took the channel’s reins last year preaching “everything does not need to be linear. Great storytelling is about drama unfolding.”

Beers started out as an actor “trained in the traditional three-act structure,” he says, “with drama arcs and character story arcs.” And growing up blue-collar in upstate Batavia, near Buffalo, in “a big Italian family that loved to tell stories,” he saw folks yearning to escape their humdrum jobs that only paid the bills. Putting that together with his own wanderlust - “I like men-centric, dangerous, exotic things” - he created his Original Productions company in 1999. His first program, “Extreme Alaska,” came across the derring-do of crab fishing, “and I thought, this is the most awesome thing in the world!”

It took a while to get “Deadliest Catch” to series, so Beers established himself in the meantime with car-and-cycle shows such as “Monster Garage,” his first Discovery smash. “Who’d have thought a bunch of guys welding and cutting Mustangs into lawn mowers would somehow capture the American imagination?”

He had his finger on the pulse of something that exploded with “Catch” in 2005 - “to bring people to the last wild places for an authentic experience, to find real people, real characters, who have an interesting story to tell. These are not people that know what they’re gonna get in their paycheck every two weeks. In essence, it’s a bigger reward. It’s exotic, and it’s deadly, and also they make a lot of money.”

So does he, and so do TV channels airing his shows. Everyone’s joining the bandwagon. Even the profile channel BIO runs “Extreme Fishermen.” At PBS, the immersive approach of “Carrier” (pbs.org/carrier) is “absolutely made for the 21st century audience,” says John Wilson, PBS’ chief programming executive.

“Observing people in real situations can be a glimpse into a world that you’re not privy to. It takes that basic documentary form and brings it alive in a way that’s engaging, fast-paced and dynamic. The story, the characters and the emotions come through in a very modern digital package.”

Both “Carrier” and this season’s “Deadliest Catch” air in high-definition, adding to the immediacy. Can there be such a thing as too immersive? Maybe. Beers’ next project is Spike’s series “1,000 Ways to Die,” which he describes as “kind of like The Darwin Awards meets `CSI.’ People die in the dumbest ways.”

You ready?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/pbs-jumps-aboard-the-reality-actioner-bandwagon-with-carrier/