It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper.
I was thinking of using one of the wasteland of television quotes, but this one is much more appropriate to the medium. When there were only three networks, with three letters, and they had, uniformly, turned a commercial medium of so much promise into so much mediocrity, it was a wonder that people didn't find the twelve dancing rabbits to be the best part of television. That is to say that nothing good has been on television, and there are many shows that were not only popular but also challenging and intellectually stimulating. With the twelve dancing rabbits, mind you. The early days of broadcast television catered to those who would typically watch it at the times they typically had to fill. Stay at home moms during the late mornings and early afternoons, children on Saturday mornings, families from 7 PM to 10 PM (the so-called multi-demographic 'Prime Time'), parents after-dinner with the news (typically 6 to 7 PM) and so on. These demographics were ones that were put forward by the nuclear family, with one parent working and multiple children and their lives were structured around work hours, school hours and off-hours which television strove to fill the latter part between meals and sleeping.
As this demographic broke up after the Baby Boomers went to school, so did the programming which became more youth centered and action oriented, with bits and pieces of other programming being shoe-horned in to meet niche demographics. There would still be widely popular programs, like The Cosby Show or The Simpsons, which would each compete for viewer time until the concept of time-shifting took hold so that people could watch both programs. Because of early videotape ability that was about it for 'time shifting' and while it could be applied to two programs in the same time slot, it could not be applied to three without another VCR. The advent of the VCR also changed the nature of commercials which could be zipped (zipped through) or zapped (removed altogether by the VCR due to time signals sent to stations for commercial programming). Suddenly, in one short span of years, getting people to watch the twelve dancing bunnies became a problem as even the simple mute button could render the best of commercials without anything to make it appealing. Many people still watched commercials, of course, and that still allowed for loss-leader programming to flourish for intellectual and other values.
Cable television, however, broadened the wasteland from three or four channels to hundreds of channels.
With nothing on to watch, as the tag-line goes.
This new industry was lead by the first real 'Super Stations', WTBS and WOR, and then CNN the offspring of the WTBS/Turner Empire. News couldn't possibly fill 24 hours of television, and yet with live feeds it came into being just as the old Eastern Bloc Nations started to throw off their yoke of Communism and the USSR, itself, imploded back to Russia. For a decade, a short decade, CNN became a reputable news outlet and another three letter network, and it would be copied into other formats (for business and financial arenas) and by other new networks. The demographic groups that now had cable television as part of its life experience learned to 'channel surf' to find something to watch and lost allegiance to the old three letter systems.
One of the great promises of cable television was niche programming, which is to say programming oriented to specific demographics that would attract them to view programs made for them. Still the old idea of demographics by age, race, and economic factors was in place, and for the most part the old Progressive Hollywood machine just adapted old messages to these new stations and programs. That was the wasteland era of cable television, where you really had little to watch and 'channel surfing' was a must even with VCRs able to pick out programs there were so few that finding something to fill television void time was ingrained as was the well worn sofa place for butts to sit in. Getting new viewers was the most important thing, and learning to hold on to them was becoming a precious commodity, and yet the old tried and true storylines just didn't pull people in. Something new was needed, and so something old was dusted off.
What was the old idea? Candid Camera by Allen Funt. The simple idea of unobtrusive cameras hidden to get video footage had been around a long time, and Allen Funt was the master of the idea and presentation of it. While news programs had utilized the idea to 'catch people on tape' doing something, it was little applied to television programming after the demise of Candid Camera, as it seemed like an idea that was truly stuck in a niche. For all of that it made very compelling viewing as one could consider how they would react in a given situation and see that they would be very much the same as the people they saw stuck in it: Allen Funt had mastered the concept of identification with someone on television that wasn't a star, wasn't out to make millions and was just an average person. The average person became the centerpiece of the program and it was that idea married to recorded video that made the program what it was. It was unbelievably hard to marry this up to a demographic, though, outside of nature documentaries.
What started in the early 21st century was the niche programming of cable television that was fully aware of time-shifting, zipping, zapping and muting, having to find a new demographic with compelling content. Instead of the old demographics, a new idea was put forward on this idea of 'what is appealing to a wide group of people across old demographic lines', and that was to follow simple programming ideas to see if they could find an audience. This was married up to unobtrusive recording and put forward as a program. There are many programs that led up to the success of this, but the breakthrough program was, arguably, Dirty Jobs by Mike Rowe.
Mike Rowe was a second string opera singer who was looking for something interesting to do, and he has self-admitted lack of skills in just about anything else. For me his major claim to fame is being one of the few men who can belt out The Start Spangled Banner, hit the notes, stay on key and put passion into it. He has told how he had gotten to be in the place of doing Dirty Jobs, but how he got to it is of less importance than its popularity. The self-effacing man who is humble enough to admit his lacks takes on some of the dirtiest and most dangerous (which is secondary) jobs around and shows that he, with little to no skills, can do them. Perhaps not well, yes, but he does not hold himself above any job and all work is worthy of exploration and appreciation. Even better is that the audience gets to see people not only dedicated to such jobs but who like such jobs: the idea that everyone needs a college education to lead a worthwhile life and career gets exploded within the first few episodes of Dirty Jobs. This program makes the everyday and absolutely necessary into not only viable ways of life but as good careers, and for most of them you don't need to go to college.
What Dirty Jobs did for the everyday job, Mythbusters has done for the documentary: make it compelling and informative and still having to deal with the twelve dancing bunnies. The co-hosts, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, work in the Hollywood Special Effects (SFX) industry and have worked on everything from commercials to feature length films, applying skills across a wide variety of areas. The show got off to a rocky start as it also wanted to look into the backgrounds of Urban Legends and Urban Myths, which tended to interrupt the flow of the program. Still those first couple of seasons offered insight into how one goes about testing these modern (and now all time era) myths and legends, utilizing knowledge, skill and the scientific method, plus the concept of small scale test runs and large scale runs to see if there are scale dependent factors involved. The show goes beyond the simple 'confirm or deny' but actually seeks to reproduce the results of myths and legends, which means that the layers of safety in our modern settings must get exposed and removed to be replaced by ever more dangerous devices. Some of the very technical aspects they keep hidden, for viewer safety, although anyone wanting to find out how they did something in detail can do so with a bit of searching. What they also do is apply their SFX skill and acumen to modern video that can have computer generated graphics and sequencing used to make things that are 'apparently real' but are, in fact, hoaxes and fabrications. All of this done in their concrete floor, steel shelving working environment with benches, mills, lathes and other things in their warehouse space: it is a true workshop environment, not a sound stage and these people work in this environment and this show is but one thing they do there. Plus there are explosions. Lots of explosions. It just isn't a Mythbusters episode if you don't have eat least one explosion.
The Discovery Channel then formulated the first real breakthrough, cross-demographic hit and continual compelling viewing experience with a show that started with Dirty Jobs when Mike Rowe went up to Alaska to experience the salmon fishing fleet from net to can on the shelf. There they found the Bering Sea crab fishermen and their dirty, nasty, frigid and often lethal job of crab fishing in the arctic water flows off Alaska in the winter: Deadliest Catch. The program itself revolves around a few central ships in the crab fleet and their crews, plus the entire fishing culture that is not just particular to fishermen but the one particular to the Bering Sea crab fleet. There is an unstated part to Deadliest Catch that wasn't really made apparent until the second season, which is that these are ALL small businesses. The crews were tight knit as they were often more than like a family, but were actual families running the vessels. On the Time Bandit it is brothers and cousins, on the Cornelia Marie it is father and sons from an estranged marriage, on the Northwestern it is brothers and cousins of Scandinavian extraction and on the Wizard it is brothers. These are businessmen taking part in the long tradition of fishing families, which goes back to the beginning of fishing due to the cost of the vessels involved. From the core members of the crew we get the extended crew, the people so close to the core that they become part of the ship's family which is that group that knows each other through good and bad, and form tight bonds over years if not decades. Every year is a struggle to get enough from the sea to make it through the year and keep the ship running and over many seasons these bonds amongst men, their ships and the sea becomes compelling.
These three programs set much of the tone and demographics to look for in compelling, non-fiction or designed setting television. They don't aim high, but low to the basics of what it means to make a good life. They feature people who are willing to experiment and who understand that when something doesn't work, it doesn't work. There is an ethos of do-it-yourself views that push each of these programs forward. They feature everyday drama which is often the crux of not just survival but getting along with others that you care about. They feature time honored business types, hard work and a work ethos that leads to a good life (if often a hard one). Together, with a few adornments for explosions, they set the tone for what came next.
Mix work ethic together with family business and those hard working, daily, family interpersonal relationships and add in customers and expertise and you get: Pawn Stars.
Concentrate on explosions and dangerous activity done by highly competent people, with a bit of designed setting, historical arms and a contest thrown in, and you get: Top Shot.
Concentrate on honoring the works of our mothers and fathers, the things they made and bringing them out to be appreciated, often worked on, plus done as a small business and you get: American Pickers and American Restoration.
This is cross-demographic, hard work as good work, supporting families and small businesses, and honoring history and good ways of life television.
It is Jacksonian television.
And if you watch one of the programs, then you probably watch more than one as the field now includes logging by both channels, gold mining both on land and in the Bering Sea, plus a plethora of other series all vying for an expansive demographic that knows no age boundaries or class limits. Any of these programs could have been made since the dawn of television.
They are made now and appreciated now, because they affirm a way of life that has been denigrated by the rest of television and entertainment because you don't have to go to college to become an expert, run a business, or have a good family life. You can achieve from any start, no matter how humble, no door is closed to a person of will, talent and the ability to stick to a job and do it right. Failure is an option and it is seen in many of these programs, but that is not a mar on a person's character, just an admission of limits as people. It is no shame that one fails at becoming a Bering Sea fisherman... and it is no shame that one must often kill animals to survive in the wilderness, or be killed by it. These programs are not just about the successes, but the lives involved and how to see that failure once is not failure always, but that conclusive failure demonstrates something once and for all. These are not people that need scripts written for them as they are leading a much more compelling life and story without a single script than any script writer could ever imagine. Not every show or attempt will be successful, but that is part of work as well, and running a network.
As the cultural ethos that backs these up is so widespread in the US, it will offer a continuing venue for new programs from Swamp People to Sons of Guns, and much, much more as America re-learns that good work is its own reward beyond any payment. And that an honest payment for such work is a dignity all its own.