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Deadliest Catch, Dirty Jobs: How real is reality TV?

Do reality TV shows like Deadliest Catch and Dirty Jobs tell it like it really is?

By James TurnerCorrespondent / February 22, 2010

Host Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" says that he dislikes it when the subjects of the show start playing to the camera and tries to direct them back to the work at hand.

DISCOVERY CHANNEL

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So called "tough guy" shows are ubiquitous, but are they accurate?

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On any given night, you can tune into the Discovery Channel and see activities as widely varied as sheepshearing, crab catching, and construction of military vehicles. Shows that focus on the workplace have become a mainstay of Discovery and its sister channels, which include TLC and Discovery Science. But is the workplace as shown on TV anything like the reality, and what does the television audience's fascination with these shows say about us?

The most widely carried cable channel in the United States, Discovery is also one of the oldest, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The channel touts such highly rated shows as "Dirty Jobs," "Deadliest Catch," and "MythBusters," as well as high-budget miniseries such as "Planet Earth." The reality programming, what "Dirty Jobs" executive producer Eddie Barbini calls "tough guy" shows, provide a large chunk of the weekly content.

Jack Bratich, associate professor at Rutgers University's Department of Journalism and Media Studies in New Jersey, believes that these shows are a window into a world that most modern people don't experience. Professor Bratich points out that while many reality shows focus on what he calls "cognitive workers," white-collar jobs such as those in design or real estate, the Discovery lineup is much more gritty. He says that these blue-collar-oriented shows offer a glimpse into a world most people don't think about. "People don't think about where fish come from, all the things that manual labor, the working class, has been providing."

For some viewers, the appeal of these shows lies in the human drama that plays out, especially the conflict. It would be tempting to assume that the participants are playing up for the camera, something Bratich says has been one of the great unanswered questions of reality TV. But according to Tim Samaras, a tornado researcher and one of the stars of "Storm Chasers," the cameras fade into the background quickly. "I think the first couple of days, it affected the crew. But then they were with us all the time. In the vehicles, they have these small cameras that run all day long. After the first couple of days, like I said, we just kind of forgot that they even existed."

If anything, Mr. Samaras says that the conflict as shown on TV is milder than what occurs in reality. "I have to tell you that none of that stuff was done just for show. I know about each of those situations. There are some strong feelings out there between a lot of the groups, and rumor has it that they [the producers] even had to scale some of that back so it didn't come out too strongly in the show."

Mr. Barbini, who was a cameraman on "Deadliest Catch" before moving on to produce many of Discovery's reality shows, says that the members of the fishing crews also tried to tone down their behavior, rather than embellish it. But he agrees with Samaras that the cameras fade into the background quickly, especially when they are there 24 hours a day for weeks on end.

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