If it aired on network television, chances are it would be called "When Grease Monkeys Attack."
"Junkyard Wars," one of the highest-rated prime-time series on the Learning Channel, has earned a special place in gear-heads' hearts, but it's not without its "Survivor"-like double-crossing and backbiting.
Take the recent competition between three spit-and-polish cops and three wild-as-they-wanna-be bikers. As the bikers scrounged through a specially equipped junkyard in the San Fernando Valley looking for parts to build a monster truck--the challenge du jour--they spotted a machine they thought could be useful to their competitors. They promptly dismantled it, pocketing a few key pieces so it couldn't be reassembled. The cops later responded by snagging the keys out of the bikers' vehicle and "misplacing" them.
A lot of soldering here, a little sabotage there, all part of the 10 hours the teams spent building 2-ton monster trucks that were later pitted against each other on a dirt raceway in Ventura County. (Non-spoiler alert: The winner won't be revealed until the episode airs in September.)
"Junkyard Wars" was born four years ago in the U.K. as "Scrapheap Challenge," the brainchild of Cathy Rogers, a producer for London-based independent production house RDF. Rogers, whose forte was science documentaries, wanted to try an ongoing popular science series. The idea for a gadget-building show came when she and another producer saw the scene in "Apollo 13" in which NASA folks cobble together spare parts and walk the astronauts through a mission-saving repair.
Rogers became "Scrapheap's" executive producer and, in year two, its easily spotted co-host, with her trademark spiky blond hair and Judy-Jetson-meets-Mad-Max outfits.
"I think the host should be a bit scuzzy," said a dirt-covered Rogers as she stepped out of a junkyard set recently. "If you wore clean clothes and came in smelling fragrant, it wouldn't last long."
The American version of the show began airing on the Learning Channel early this year, tapping into the current geek-friendly programming wave that includes Comedy Central's "BattleBots" and TLC's "Robotica." TNN plans an entry into the genre, and other cable networks are mulling the same.
Soon after its January launch, "Junkyard Wars" became TLC's highest-rated prime-time show. These days, with an average of 5 million people tuning in weekly (an original episode airs on Mondays with several repeats through the week), it's the network's biggest draw among men 25 to 54. It spawned a recently signed toy deal that will put tiny replicas of the build-it-yourself contraptions on shelves by Christmas, and other merchandising is in the works.
The series features two teams of builders--weekend warriors, backyard inventors, students and scientists among them--turned loose in a junkyard and given a day to make something out of nothing. Manual dexterity is required, along with a knowledge of tools, transmissions and torque. Creativity helps too.
"They come up with very different beasts," said Jeremy Cross, the show's executive producer. "It's pot luck."
The competitors don't know what they'll be building until they arrive at the junkyard, which has been stocked with industrial scrap metal, household appliances, car chassis, propellers, wire, wheels and all manner of widgets. No matter how many red (rusty) herrings are there, so are all the parts necessary to complete their task. They each get an expert, such as an engineer, as an on-site consultant. The next day, the two inventions compete against each other.
The team members are as much the stars of the show as are the projects they build, Cross said. People audition by sending in videos of themselves and something they've created; so far, there have been thousands of entries.
The cops and bikers, like many of the competitors, are car fixer-uppers and longtime building buddies. Unlike "Survivor" and other unscripted TV shows, the "Junkyard" teams don't walk away with cash. Aside from bragging rights and advancement to the next level of competition, they get a trophy that's been fashioned, of course, from junk, "worth about $1.50," Cross said.
Previous challenges have had teams building Hovercrafts, rocket launchers and cannons; often it's a vehicle that can swim, fly or float. Rogers wanted a helicopter built, but experts have told her it can't be done in a day.
The cable channel (which blends education and entertainment), capitalizing on "Junkyard Wars' " cultish popularity, plans to start airing specials that use the same, yet amped-up, format. A two-hour turbo-charged "Junkyard Wars," called "MegaWars," will air at Thanksgiving in which three teams will have 20 hours to build their projects, likely to be twice as complicated as anything that's come before.
The teams will be from the U.S., Britain and Russia. The show aims to back up TLC's mission of "delivering information and knowledge in a very nonacademic way," said Alexandra Middendorf, executive producer of program production. "There's a sense of immediacy about it, and unpredictability."
Along with watching the teams build their gizmos, the show tucks in graphics and explanations of their strategies and options, how a machine will work, or why it failed. To broaden the show's appeal beyond its predominantly male audience, TLC has made an effort to get more women contestants, and recently had a team that consisted of a father and his two daughters. That episode, airing in the fall, centered on another possible audience draw: a "Family Feud"-style matchup, with the other team being a dad and his two sons. The consulting experts were twin brothers.
Today's show will pit American and British teams. In the percolating stages is a retro "Junkyard Wars" to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight. Only vintage materials from 1903 will be used, and the teams will be challenged to re-create or improve on the Wrights' design.
Rogers said she underestimated how many people in the U.S. tinker with cars and build contraptions in their garages. "There are so many incredibly skilled people out there," she said, "and they're not the ones you normally see on television."
* "Junkyard Wars" can be seen Mondays at 8 p.m. on the Learning Channel, with repeats Mondays at 11 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. Tonight's U.S.-U.K. matchup can been seen at 9 p.m.