Glenn and Mitchell Guist
When a young programming executive at the History channel first pitched the idea of following a group of Louisiana Cajuns who hunt alligators, "the poor guy got laughed out of the room," says the network's president, Nancy Dubuc. But instead of dropping the idea, he kept bringing it up — and kept getting laughed at.
"But by the fourth meeting, you had to pause," Dubuc says. "If somebody is as passionate as he was about something, what's the harm in letting them run with it?" That germ of an idea turned into Swamp People, an unlikely hit that frequently beats some broadcast network shows among men on Thursdays.
A genre that may have seemed like a gimmick a few years ago, the Testosterone TV business has been great for cable networks like History, Discovery, Spike, truTV, A&E and even the National Geographic Channel. And the shows just keep coming: Next up, TV Guide Magazine has learned that Spike just picked up the pilot Hazmat Men, which showcases a group of expertly trained guys (and yes, it's all guys) who work to keep the public safe from catastrophe.
Hazmat Men joins a full slate of non-scripted series at Spike that are all teeming with the Y chromosome. Newly announced shows Full Bounty (bounty hunters), Tattoo Nightmares (tattoo cover-up artists) and Rat Bastards (Spike's version of Swamp People) join a lineup that also includes American Digger, Diamond Divers and Big Easy Justice.
Young men are traditionally hard to reach, which is why the broadcast networks (particularly ABC) focus on attracting women. But by targeting guys with a hunger for reality shows that feature Manly Men Doing Manly Things — think Pawn Stars, American Pickers, Ax Men, Dirty Jobs, Black Gold, Storage Wars and two of the genre's granddaddies, Dog the Bounty Hunter and Deadliest Catch — cable is getting even more competitive with broadcast, particularly at 10pm.
Boasting a steady diet of Guy TV, History was the No. 1 cable network among men 18—49 and 25—54 in February, even beating perennial top gun ESPN. On Fridays, Discovery's hit series Gold Rush is regularly beating every show on the broadcast networks in the 18—49 demo. "These are male soap operas," says Dubuc. "The shows not only embody a male spirit, but they capitalize on a broader American spirit. It's everyday people, hardworking men and women, not shows where people are being paid $50 million to star."
Discovery executive vice president Nancy Daniels thinks watching these shows gives male viewers a sense of wish fulfillment in a struggling economy. "All these people are living on their own terms, doing what they're passionate about, and there's something innately appealing about that." But Daniels notes that many of these shows do well because they manage to attract both genders. "Guys might like watching other guys risking it all, digging with real equipment and the process of finding gold, while women get into the characters," she says.
The top producers in the field include Thom Beers (Deadliest Catch) and Craig Piligian (American Chopper), who says he remains on the lookout in the pages of The New York Times and elsewhere for ordinary people with outsize personalities and a passion for an unconventional job or sport. That's how he found the plumbers who chase paranormal activity on Ghost Hunters and Shane Adams, the Full Metal Jousting host who's been interested in the sport since he was 8. "That is real testosterone," Piligian says. "You've got to be a little nutty because there is no defense in that sport. It's only offense."
What's the fascination for these shows? "There's a fighter in every guy," says Piligian. "At some point every guy backed up against the wall is going to throw a punch. A guy watches these shows, they feel it, they see it, they think they can do it." Piligian is also the exec producer of Dirty Jobs, hosted by Mike Rowe, whom he calls "the toughest guy in Hollywood. He's done some of the scariest, toughest, meanest jobs anyone can do."
A slew of copycats and spin-offs — just look at the sheer number of pawnshop-related shows in the wake of Pawn Stars — now threaten to saturate the Manly TV landscape. "I'm astounded by how much copycat programming continues to exist," Dubuc says. "We won't ever know [how big Pawn Stars] would have been if there weren't 15 other versions of it [out there]." Dubuc says she knows very well that the competition is knocking. "This is a team that understands we are in a moment. We're squarely focused on how to capitalize on that moment."
At Discovery, Daniels says she hears hundreds of pitches in the Testosterone TV genre — shows about "stuff" and the "manly blue-collar world" — but says, "The stars have to align for us to think this is a world we haven't seen and characters we want to keep watching. We're looking for authentic people in authentic situations that resonate with the audience," she says. "There are a lot of people who are fishermen. And there are a lot of people who go out to stake a gold claim. But we've struck gold in our own way."
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