Ruth England is in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert of northern Mexico vomiting up her husband's urine. She had tried to choke down a fresh cup of the stuff to stave off dehydration, as her husband, survivalist Mykel Hawke, looked on. But hours later, England succumbs to heat stroke and severe dehydration. The ordeal wasn't part of a family vacation gone horribly wrong but a scene from the reality series "Man, Woman, Wild." "It was like the worst hangover you can imagine, combined with food poisoning," she remembers.
"Man, Woman, Wild," which began its second season on the Discovery Channel on Friday, is just one of many recent entries in the rapidly expanding world of survival TV. These series feature tougher-than-you individuals placing themselves in extreme environments — a gator-infested swamp in Louisiana, say, or the jungles of Thailand — then laboring mightily to escape them.
Discovery captured the lion's share of the survival TV market with such current and former shows as "Man vs. Wild," "Man, Woman, Wild," "Dual Survival" and "Survivorman." "The Wild Within," which airs on Travel Channel, follows writer and hunter-gatherer Steven Rinella as he kills and eats the local fauna of Guyana, Alaska and Scotland; on the Science Channel's "Mantracker," human bloodhound Terry Grant pursues two-person teams (known as "the prey") through the backwoods of Canada and the U.S.
The shows have delivered big ratings for Discovery, particularly with the coveted 25-54 male market. More than a million viewers tune in to "Man vs. Wild" every week; when "Man, Woman, Wild" opened last year, the show attracted 1.2 million fans.
Why are these shows so popular? Maybe it's because viewers have become so inept at the most basic of human tasks — securing food, building lodgings, making fire — it's comforting to see folks who can do all three with just a sharp knife and a bit of twine. Perhaps it's the growing fear of grids and governments tumbling down and the satisfaction of knowing that one could survive if we just learned to live like these guys.
Or maybe viewers just enjoy watching other people suffer. "Viewers love to see people in miserable environments toughing it out," says Brian Lovett, executive producer of "Dual Survival." "It's 100 degrees, a snake could kill them, yet they're doing their thing. People love that."
In "Dual Survival," in preproduction for a third season, former U.S. Army sniper Dave Canterbury teams with wilderness expert Cody Lundin to tackle horrific situations that might kill less-experienced adventurers. Canterbury wears camouflage and a near-perpetual scowl; Lundin eschews shoes and long pants even in Arctic temperatures.
On an episode this season titled "Slash and Burn," the pair took on the roles of hunters lost in the wilds of Tierra del Fuego, in Argentina. In the scenario, one of them has a gaping wound. Veteran producer Lovett had read somewhere that one could cauterize such an injury using gunpowder and fire.
"You've got to do something that people are going to be talking about around the water cooler on Monday morning," Canterbury says. "At the same time, you have to ask yourself: Would I do this in a survival situation?"
As the cameras roll, Canterbury slices open his right forearm, then watches as Lundin pours gunpowder into the wound and sets it on fire. Blood continues to seep, so Lundin tries again. It's tough to say which is creepier: watching a guy set his arm on fire, twice, or that Canterbury's face barely moves throughout the ordeal.
"I love everything about doing the show," Canterbury says. "You think, maybe this is not the most comfortable position I've ever been in, but if I can get through this, then I know something else I can do in the future."
If Canterbury loves it all, England, over on "Man, Woman, Wild," finds most of what she does "dreadful."
The British journalist's favorite part of the show, she says, is the gin and tonic she has on the plane trips home. In one episode, husband and wife come upon a freshly killed wildebeest. Hawke wants England to cut off a chunk for dinner, even though the lion that killed the animal can't be far off. England thinks the idea is way too dangerous.
"We absolutely scream at each other," says England. "But I think it's one thing that people can relate to, because it's the kind of normal bickering you would have at home in your living room."
Key to the success of these shows, says Nancy Daniels, executive vice president of production and development at Discovery, is finding the right hosts. "When they're not credible, the audience sniffs it out and rejects it. One of the tests for me is, would they be doing this if the camera wasn't rolling? And in most cases, they would be."
"Man vs. Wild," which premiered in 2006, is one of the undisputed granddaddies of the genre, but host Bear Grylls doesn't mind all the copycats. "We're all doing different jobs and encouraging people to get out there and live their adventures," he says. "I treat it as a compliment."
The show recently wrapped its seventh season, with Grylls constructing a makeshift wetsuit from a seal's carcass in one episode. And on this season's "Man, Woman, Wild," England and spouse endure the worst that Croatia, the Amazon and the Bermuda Triangle have to offer.
"If someone had told me, years back, you'll be out there wrestling snakes and eating worms, I would have thought, there's no bloody way on Earth I'm going to be doing that," says England. "But when you're in that environment, you just have to adjust. Recalibrate your thinking. A large amount of my family and friends think I'm a lunatic."