Shows about deadly jobs rely on brave video crews, good insurance

Rogue waves. Plunging temperatures. Searing heat. Volatile cities. While some viewers associate reality TV with catfights and boozy hookups, the current crop of cable shows boasts a bounty of high-octane programming filmed in dangerous environments.

Programs including “Deadliest Catch” and “Gold Rush” have become tentpoles for cablers like Discovery, giving the elusive younger male demo the kind of real-life, action-packed sequences and storylines they crave.

And proving that high-octane reality TV is far from losing momentum, Discovery’s Friday-night pairing of new mining series “Jungle Gold” and returning skein “Gold Rush” helped make Discovery the No. 1 network among men 18-49 in all of TV on Nov. 9. “Gold Rush” ranks as the net’s best performing show of the season.

History Channel already skews toward men, but the addition of shows like “Ax Men” have helped further establish the cabler as a go-to for male auds. “Ax Men” often boasts male viewership that’s more than double the tune-in among females.

“Deadliest Catch” also consistently draws more male viewers than females while ranking as one of Discovery’s top series. One episode that chronicled the last moments in the life of Captain Phil Harris, who died of a heart attack onboard his crab-fishing ship in 2010, topped 8 million viewers, making it the third highest-rated broadcast in Discovery’s history.

While men traditionally watch less TV than their femme counterparts (females 18-49 tune in for 11 more hours a month than men of the same age group), the ratings for these life-on-the-edge shows are proof that male viewers can still be a driving force in cable rankings.

And while millions of viewers are vicariously drawn to the hazardous occupations featured in skeins like “Deadliest Catch,” “Ax Men” and History’s “Ice Road Truckers,” there are other dangerous jobs that can go unnoticed — those of the people who work behind the camera documenting the action.

Indeed, the workplaces for c ameramen and production crews have become increasingly precarious as demand explodes for edgy reality fare. Reality maven John Langley understands the production risks from his years on the long-running “Cops,” which premiered in 1989.

“We’ve been shot at, we’ve had two-by-fours slammed into cameras, we’ve been smashed into,” recalls Langley, who created the skein. “When I first started filming ‘Cops,’ we had no protection. It became obvious we needed bulletproof vests. Suspects wouldn’t be shooting at us in particular, but it’d sure feel like it. Now, all of our production crews wear bulletproof vests.”

Showrunners soon upped the ante, following people to even more hazardous jobs. One-off specials featuring dangerous occupations were peppered through cablers’ lineups in the late ’90s and early 2000s until the premiere and success of “Deadliest Catch” helped pave the way for testosterone-infused series.

Thom Beers and his company Original Prods. produce “Deadliest Catch” along with “Ax Men,” “Bering Sea Gold” and “Ice Road Truckers.” Behind-the-scenes clips of “Deadliest Catch” include an array of production-crew injuries, with cameramen slipping into holes on the crab-fishing boat, brandishing bruises and dealing with seasickness.

Beers made the first “Deadliest Catch” show himself. He was hired by Discovery in the ’90s to produce “Extreme Alaska” and says he “researched all of these different, dangerous worlds. I went out on this boat, the Fierce Allegiance, in 1999. (We were) 200 miles at sea, and ran into the worst storm in years. It was chaos.” Beers’s creative instincts kicked in once safely back on dry land. “It was supposed to be a 12-minute segment in a two-hour special. When I saw the material, I told Discovery, ‘I can make you an amazing special on the deadliest job in the world.’?”

“Deadliest Catch” is now airs in more than 150 countries.

Deadly jobs continue to be a creative go-to for reality producers, though production on these projects can take its toll. “Jungle Gold” producer Sam Maynard says that filming the unscripted skein was one of the biggest challenges of his career.

“Carrying camera equipment through chest-deep swamps in tropical heat every day, it affects even the fittest of cameramen,” Maynard says. “The gold business in West Africa is volatile and dangerous. We had warning shots fired as us a few times by miners protecting what they saw as their land. One time we had to negotiate our way through a riot.”

Many shows employ a legal safety net during pre-production and filming. Risk assessment groups like Global Film Solutions are hired both before and during production of reality skeins to determine a shoot’s level of safety, security and availability of medical attention.

“Networks and studios are risk-averse,” says GFS topper Julian Grimmond, who has produced “The Amazing Race” among other unscripted shows. “A producer will sell a great idea, the net will get excited about it, and then we have to smell the coffee and realize there’s a chance of a negative outcome.”

The services of GFS have been key to shows like Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” which have begun sending crews into politically volatile environments. The company provides producers with comprehensive information about the location before shooting, then supplies experts in the geographic region to accompany the crew during production.

“When you think about how these shows are shot, you need someone watching out for the crew in dangerous regions,” says Sandy Zweig, exec producer of “No Reservations.” “We have a consultant who is looking after the two cameramen. When they’re filming, they need someone to (watch their backs) so they can keep doing their job.”

Some locations, though, prove to be too dangerous to film in. “We’ve been trying to go to Libya,” Zweig says. “We’ve gone back and forth with it, and have had to postpone it due to the political atmosphere.”

Sometimes it’s not just the danger that can lead to a segment or idea being scrapped, but the additional cost of security.

“Every risk can be mitigated, but it comes at a price,” Grimmond says. “You’re always making a decision between the mitigation and the reality of budget.”

Nancy Daniels, exec veep of production and development at Discovery, says that though the network may love a project idea, after “intense vetting with security and legal experts, we didn’t think certain projects were safe. At the end of the day, we pulled the plug.” Daniels did not disclose what project was canned.

Yet, Daniels admires the tenacity of cameramen who crave the adventure of production. “I often think if these cameramen weren’t shooting shows like ‘Deadliest Catch,’ they’d be (out) crabbing.”

Beers uses himself as the litmus test for his projects. “I’m not sending anybody, any crew out into danger that I haven’t survived,” he says. “I’ve been with the ax men in the forests, I’ve been on the ice roads, on the oil rigs. … It’s important you experience it first so you aren’t some wuss production exec that’s sending people into danger when you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

After he gives the project a first run himself, crews are put to the test. On “Deadliest Catch,” for example, each crew member has to pass a Coast Guard test that includes putting on a dry survival suit in less than two minutes and jumping into the ocean. “It’s everything you’d have to do if a boat was about to sink,” notes Beers.

He worries, however, about “over-legislation” from networks and their legal teams.

“We obviously have to work within the parameters of what is safe,” he says. “But my concern is networks who allow their legal teams to impose

additional layers.”

He recalls working on a series on mud-bog racing for FX in which, as he sees it, mitigating risk became more important than delivering a compelling show.

“The legal team came in and said the racers had to be at least 150 feet apart,” Beers says. “The minute they said that, they took the drama out of the show. How are you ever going to create something provocative and compellin
g? That unfettered danger is what makes people watch.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more