Tough guys get a cable comeback

Broadcast pinches 'blue collar' concept

Testosterone’s making a TV comeback.

Tough guys are grappling their way back to the small screen, thanks to the wild success of such man vs. the elements reality shows like Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch” and History’s “Ice Road Truckers.”

Now, broadcast nets are following cable’s lead — adding several extreme, adrenaline-fueled shows to their primetime mix, including NBC’s “America’s Toughest Jobs” and the CW’s “In Harm’s Way.”

“People want to see blue collar, American workers who keep this country moving,” says Craig Piligian, exec producer of “In Harm’s Way.” “Typically the men and women in these jobs, because they’re dangerous, hard-labor kind of jobs, are charismatic, likable and fun to watch.”

Even scripted series are getting a bit more masculine: ABC’s “Life on Mars” stars Jason O’Mara as a time-traveling cop relocated to the 1970s, while “Mad Men” features Jon Hamm as a hard-drinking, chimney-smoking womanizer from the 1960s.

To be fair, TV never completely lost its manhood — just ask Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey or Jack Bauer.

But these days, women dominate tube viewing — hence the predominance of dramas like “Grey’s Anatomy” or such reality competitions as “Project Runway.” Meanwhile, the men on TV’s most-watched shows (think Ryan and Simon on “American Idol” or Patrick Dempsey on “Grey’s”) are well-groomed, witty and non-threatening.

It’s been years since such shows as “Starsky & Hutch,” “The A-Team,” “The Fall Guy” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” — and before that, oaters like “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke” — gave viewers an all-encompassing weekly dose of Y chromosome.

Rather, brawn has migrated to reality TV. It’s such shows as “Deadliest Catch” that helped usher in the trend in 2005 (and scored five Emmy noms this year), that are at the forefront of He-TV.

“Catch” has made stars out of real-life fishermen such as Phil Harris, captain of the fishing vessel Cornelia Marie.

Harris has spent 30 years at sea, including the past 16 as a boat captain, braving the subfreezing weather, 40-foot waves and 80-mph winds during Alaskan king crab season. In his off season, Harris rides Harleys.

“These are the new Steve McQueens and John Waynes,” says Discovery Channel president/general manager John Ford. “These guys are independent mavericks, risk takers, gamblers and self-reliant. In a way, they are what America’s roots are — go West, go explore uncharted territory, rough it out on your own. That’s our history.”

The feature world’s even taking notice: Sony Pictures has acquired the format rights to “Ice Road Truckers” to develop a scripted feature based on that world.

Original Prods.’ Thom Beers, who’s behind “Ice Road Truckers” as well as “Deadliest Catch,” “America’s Toughest Jobs,” TruTV’s “Black Gold” and History’s “Ax Men,” among other skeins, credits his recent success on the real-life characters and authentic experiences he finds for his shows.

“I don’t pick occupations where things are mundane,” he says. “It’s high risk and high reward in interesting locations. There are real stakes.”

Piligian, whose Pilgrim Films and TV shingle is also behind “Dirty Jobs” and the upcoming “Sandhogs,” says he’s looking to profile dangerous jobs and situations — which naturally attract unusual, mostly male personalities who make for good television.

“We’re looking for those kinds of occupations that have that kind of inherent danger just by punching the time clock,” Piligian says. “When you watch (History’s upcoming) ‘Sandhogs,’ these guys are 800 feet below New York City (digging tunnels) and blowing shit up. You typically get people in these jobs who are likable, fun to watch and say nutty things.”

Until recently, the broadcast networks have been resistant to bringing these kind of extreme, docu-style reality series to primetime — figuring the shows were too niche and too identified with cable. In bringing “America’s Toughest Jobs” to NBC, Beers added a competitive element a tad more familiar to broadcast auds.

Beers’ deal with BermanBraun and NBC calls for several more projects in the coming months, and so far, the other hourlongs in the works sound a little more like the extreme fare he’s known for producing in cable: “Swords: Lives on the Line” focuses on New England fishermen; “Shark Taggers” chronicles marine biologists as they track down great whites; and “Salvage” centers on a group of people scrambling to dismantle an abandoned oil rig before hurricane season.

The broadcast network shows, however, come with one big advantage: Budgets are almost 40% higher than their cable counterparts.

“That means more helicopters, more cameramen, nicer graphics packages, more time on the ground,” he says. “You have more money to spend in pre-production as well, in location and casting.”

But will some of the testosterone be lost? In broadcast, Beers says, the producers also have been asked to add a little more gender balance to the mix.

“My shows are usually 65/35 male/female,” he says. “That’s where I go, unashamedly and unabashedly. On the network, we have to figure out how to bring women along. Guys want to see things blown up. We need to work a little more on that.”

With so many of these shows hitting the air, the saturation point also may be rapidly approaching. But Ford says he’s not too bothered by other nets taking a piece of the Tough Guy pie.

“It’s a fact of life — popularity in TV always attracts the competition,” Ford says. “Certainly ‘Deadliest Catch’ is the best of the bunch, and while everything else comes along and tries to capture the same magic, none have been as successful so far.”

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