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 , Correspondent

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

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.

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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.

Part of the reason that these shows seem so exciting is that they are edited that way. For obvious reasons, much of the mundane day-to-day activity ends up on the cutting room floor, which can make the jobs seem as if they are filled with more peril and adventure than they are. "MythBusters" Grant Imahara says that it can be difficult to make activities such as repeating an experiment a hundred times exciting to the viewer. "Nobody really wants to watch all of those tests; that doesn't make compelling TV. And so the editing room, they'll speed it up or recap it or summarize the results for us."

The potential for disaster is also a draw for many of these shows. "I have to say that watching car races, my interest [is piqued] when somebody wrecks," says "Storm Chasers" Samaras. "And I have to say that's true in 'Storm Chasers,' 'Deadliest Catch' or any of the others. I think that's what helps form reality television." Phil Harris, captain of the Cornelia Marie on the "Deadliest Catch," had a stroke on camera and died Feb. 9. But how his illness will be edited or even included has not been decided, the production company told the Los Angeles Times.

One exception to the exciting and dangerous model most of the shows take is "Dirty Jobs," which seems to go out of its way to celebrate the boring and mundane work most blue-collar workers do. Both Barbini and Discovery Channel president Clark Bunting attribute the success of "Dirty Jobs" largely to its host, Mike Rowe. Since the shows usually deal with a single day at a workplace, there is no time for the workers to acclimate to the cameras. In a past interview for digg.com, Mr. Rowe stated that he dislikes when the subjects of the show start playing to the camera and tries to direct them back to the work at hand.

Barbini says that another unique factor of "Dirty Jobs" is the way in which the film crew is shown on camera, rather than the norm in most reality shows, which is to avoid showing the crew if at all possible. Part of this is due to the cramped quarters the crew and Rowe often find themselves in, but there is more to it than that. According to Barbini, "Dirty Jobs" is in some ways a reality TV show about making reality TV shows. "It is intentional, because the crew is executing a job, just like the people we are going to visit. I think that people are just interested in what goes on behind the scenes of a reality TV show, and Mike really integrated that very naturally."

As popular as the shows are, they may be on the wane, at least for Discovery. "My goal, candidly, is to move away from the direction of doing perilous jobs, and move more in the direction of the visual story and wow factor," states Mr. Bunting. He cites upcoming series dealing with topics such as curiosity and energy, as well as past shows such as "Planet Earth" and "Life," as the direction he'd like to take the channel.

Bunting is also pragmatic about the need to provide a mix, especially on a channel with such a broad audience. "You can't do 'Life' all the time. You can't do 'Planet Earth' all the time. But what you can do is stay true to those core concepts with shows like 'MythBusters,' like 'Dirty Jobs,' that I think fit equally well into that brand of discovery as 'Planet Earth' and 'Life.' "

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