Most days, Gary Saurage is up to his armpits in alligators, whether he’s feeding whole chickens to a 13-footer named Big Al or wrestling an anonymous gator in someone’s backyard swimming pool.
An educator and conservationist, he is the star of CMT’s new show “Gator 911" and was just the kind of guy that the cable channel’s programmers wanted to help launch their first pair of male-targeted reality shows in a sub-genre that’s hot and getting hotter: manly men in life-threatening jobs. The upcoming CMT block is just the latest version of macho TV, where even a network known primarily for its Taylor Swift music videos and top 20 countdowns wants in on the virility act.
“These shows have dramatic story lines, unpredictable endings, beautiful scenery, great characters, action adventure,” said Bob Kusbit, CMT’s head of programming. “These guys are larger than life.”
And they’re everywhere. There’s the granddaddy of the genre, the Emmy-winning “Deadliest Catch,” shooting its sixth season now in the Bering Sea, where it captures the frigid, danger-filled days and nights of Alaskan-crab fishermen, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says has the highest fatality rate of any occupation. The Discovery Channel aired a post-Thanksgiving marathon of the series Friday, specifically for men who’d rather hit the couch than the mall.
There are more recent entries, like truTV’s “Black Gold” (oil riggers) and Discovery’s “Swords: Life on the Line” (New England fishermen), recently picked up for a second season. There’s hardly a night of the week, mostly in the cable universe, without a men-in-peril show.
And more are on the way, with another season of “Ice Road Truckers,” the History Channel’s highest-rated show, shooting now and spawning a second series that will follow truckers on some of the most hazardous roads around the world. “Ax Men,” about loggers in the Pacific Northwest, will return in a few months, and there’s plenty of “Verminators,” “Storm Chasers,” “Lobstermen,” “Swamp Loggers,” “The Detonators,” and “Dirty Jobs” to keep the adrenaline flowing.
Audiences are responding: 3 million people watched the “Ice Road Truckers” premiere this summer, and 4.1 million viewers tuned in to the “Deadliest Catch” season premiere in June, making it the top-rated non-sports show of the night across broadcast and cable TV among men 18-49 and 25-54.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, some industry watchers say, that reality TV has gone so over the top that it now builds programming around obscure life-and-limb careers.
“The concept of moderation is AWOL,” said Stuart Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology. “We live in extreme times, and to get an audience interested, you have to keep upping the ante.”
For fans -- many of them young men in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic -- the shows deliver a vicarious thrill and a testosterone-charged option when they’re not watching sports.
“It’s not heavy cerebral lifting,” said Carlsbad resident David Migdal, a serious “Ice Road Truckers” fan who says he’s rarely watched episodic TV since “The Sopranos” left the air. “These guys work hard, battle the elements, get paid and move on. They’re throwbacks to a simpler, more basic time. They’re the last American cowboys.”
And, most important to the viewers, the newly minted stars of these shows are as authentic as their callings. If the cameras weren’t there, in other words, they’d still be risking their necks for a paycheck.
“I’d love to sit down and spend time with these guys because they’re real people,” said New York fan David Bulhack, an avid fisherman and outdoorsman who watches “Deadliest Catch,” “Ax Men” and “Ice Road Truckers,” among others. “They’re doing things we might want to do, but we just can’t pull the trigger.”
Indeed, it could be the relative safety of many people’s cubicle jockey lives that compels them to watch these walks on the wild side.
“There’s a romantic aspect to these shows,” said Nancy Dubuc, president and general manager of the History Channel, where “Ice Road Truckers” and “Ax Men” regularly land in the network’s top-rated spots. “They’re very primal.”
Thom Beers, whose Original Productions has put such adventure-job shows on the map as “Deadliest Catch,” “Ax Men” and “Ice Road Truckers,” said the economy and the double-digit unemployment rate may have nothing to do with it, but the shows’ salt-of-the-earth quality draws viewers.
“Our hero is the common man now,” Beers said. “Once it was the World War II hero, then the superhero, then the Wall Street wizard. Now it’s the mechanic next door.”
Beers, who describes himself as “a shot-and-beer kind of guy” with blue-collar Midwestern roots, said the shows have a template: They laser-focus on high-risk, high-reward employment in exotic locations. “Casting is very important and so are dramatic story arcs,” he said. “It’s all about ingenuity and good, honest labor.”
There’s no denying the potential for disaster, and injuries are common for the workers being filmed and for the crews. Those involved in extreme-job shows say tragedy is a constant concern.
“I dread that phone call -- I worry about it every day,” Dubuc said. “There’s no redo and that’s what makes the jeopardy so powerful. It’s harrowing.”
Beers, who said he hasn’t lost a cast or crew member in his 15 years of shooting in the genre, knows viewers may watch because of the NASCAR effect -- everybody’s waiting for a crash -- but he thinks they want to see near-death experiences and not the real thing.
The shows and the marketing around them rely heavily on that sense of impending doom. “You root for these guys because you never know when something bad will happen,” said über-fan Bulhack. “You always wonder if people will die.”
CMT, for its part, will try to capture the heart-pumping aspects of the genre without getting too intense or dark. “Gator 911,” set in Beaumont, Texas, and “Danger Coast,” a Miami-based water-rescue show, are expected to launch back-to-back in April, with a dose of humor added to the manly action. Executives learned from audience research that CMT viewers were watching lots of adventure shows on other networks and decided to dive in.
“We wanted something people haven’t seen before, especially since there are so many in the genre now,” said Mary Beth Cunin, CMT’s senior vice president, program strategy. “But we’ll be going for colorful, entertaining and family friendly.”