They're called docusoaps--those tough-guy shows that make TV stars out of lumberjacks, king crab fishermen, LA dockworkers, tow truck drivers, and a guy that tries jobs you don't even know--or want to know exist. In an effort to leap beyond mundane reality television and capture the pursued young-male audience, networks are ramping up their menu of evening fare that blends personal interest with action, drama, the unknown, and a light dose of humor.
Does this new spectrum of entertainment reflect genuine creativity or a desperate attempt to capture an illusive--and lucrative audience?
At one level, testosterone TV is innocent enough. Watching Bear Grylls face another wild frontier or holding your nose while Mike Rowe dives into a sewer or an equally gross setting provides a nice break from the mental pressure of working all day in a knowledge economy. But it's worth asking if can-he-make-it, bet-he-won't TV goes too far when surviving a chilly night in the wilderness is superseded by getting your head smacked during a cagefight.
According to the creators of this new genre of programs, the possibilities are far from tapped. Low costs and wide demographic appeal make this kind of programming an attractive albeit potentially short-lived way to gain ratings. Crime scene cleaners, extreme janitors, and pest-killers may soon be on a station near you.
But some networks are going beyond tough guy against the elements to tough guy against tougher guy with shows like The Ultimate Fighter, Iron Ring, and World Extreme Cagefighting. Is eating road-kill the in the same world as hand-to-hand combat that is begins to look more like the Colosseum of Rome than a boxing match?
The back side of creativity can often be the law of diminishing returns. Driving a truck over a frozen Canadian lake is cool for a while. Watching COPs break up another domestic dispute holds an element of suspense for a limited amount of time. But TV that's designed to stimulate adrenaline always has to up the ante in order to keep an audience engaged.
Is reality TV for the young male audience a zero sum game? Can you keep an audience engaged--and buying without going over the top? We'll see. . .