‘In my world, I’m always trying to stay one step ahead of the competition and create genres, not just good shows.’ This philosophy, offered by Thom Beers, the charismatic CEO and executive producer at Original Productions, is evident when you look at the Burbank-based company’s long list of standout reality series, most of which focus on everyday heroes. Beers offers a simple reason why he’s honed in on this particular type of character: ‘I’m a blue-collar guy. Growing up, my dad worked for Ford for 40 years, my aunts were all nurses, my uncles worked in construction – that’s my life. I’m not a brain surgeon. The thing is, you’ve got to do what you know.’
This strategy is paying off. Even before FremantleMedia Enterprises, which recently acquired Original’s Black Gold, Verminators and 1000 Ways to Die, had the chance to officially bring the series to the light of day (or, more accurately, the light in the Palais) at MIPCOM, they were snapped up by big-name UK broadcasters, including Five and Virgin1.
Other Original shows have also done well across the pond. ‘Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers kick some serious butt over there, and Ax Men just premiered and it did, like, four times the normal rating in the time slot [on Five],’ says Beers. The show’s premiere reportedly drew 1.8 million viewers (7.9%) and increased Five’s share of 16-to-34s from an average of 3% to 7.6%.
What is it that makes Original’s unscripted series resonate so well in both continents? ‘The Europeans are much more grounded than we are; they really understand and appreciate real hard work,’ says Beers. ‘They go out and just do the job.’ But, at the same time, Beers is reminded of an experience he had in a tourist shop in Brighton. After enquiring about the West Coast Choppers motorcycle jacket Beers was wearing (a gift from Jesse James of TLC’s Monster Garage), the man working the counter started talking with Beers about several other Original shows he watches, and the high-risk/high-reward jobs they honor. Recalls Beers: ‘He said ‘What I like about your shows is the fact that here we don’t have any dangerous jobs – everything’s all legislated and safety commissioned. Here, an injury with a truck driver is getting a sliver.”
Beers also pushes for integrity in Original’s products. ‘It’s not a forced reality,’ he says of the filming of the shows. ‘I don’t put people on a crab fishing boat and tell them to jump on a pogo stick until somebody falls.’
In fact, Beers himself isn’t afraid of looking silly. When describing the subjects he chooses, he says, ‘I just do stuff that I’m interested in. I have a real curiosity about how things work, and what the dynamics are of life. There’s humor, there’s honesty, but I’m not afraid to show frailties and be a knucklehead.’ Take the time Beers was interviewing James Hetfield of Metallica and Jesse James as James was building Hetfield a motorcycle in the West Coast Choppers shop. Examining the frame of the bike while a camera was rolling, Beers asked Hetfield if he looked at the frame in the same way he would the melody of a song when he’s writing music. ‘And there’s this great long pause and Hetfield looks at Jesse, then he looks at me and he goes ‘What the fuck is a melody? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.’ And he and Jesse just pounded me…’
The analogy may have been too cheesy for a rock star, but at least Beers knew what he was talking about – he’s a huge motorcycle enthusiast, and recently visited Comic Con with his first graphic novel, Chopper Zombie, about a motorcycle builder who won’t sell his super-fuel formula to an evil corporation. In addition to the pride and joy of his wheels-related collection – a rare 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge convertible with only 13,000 original miles on it – he’s got three motorcycles: a 2005 Harley Springer Softtail classic, a 1948 Harley Knucklehead full ground-up restoration, and a CFL West Coast Chopper ‘that Jesse made for me and Discovery gave to me as a gift.’
Reaching a place in his career when broadcasters are bestowing him with expensive gifts for creating hit shows didn’t happen overnight. Beers was a production executive and series and specials producer for Turner Broadcasting for 11 years, and later moved on to Paramount syndicated TV in a similar capacity. During his time at Turner, Beers says he learned some things that he’s held with him, and used when building Original (which will be celebrating its 10-year anniversary next year). ‘When somebody would come into my office with the rough cut of a show that I’d hired them to produce I’d look at that tape, and I’d say ‘Is this the tape and producer that’s going to ruin my career? Is this the one that’s going to bury me?”
From that, Beers says he established two mottoes. The first is ‘On time, on budget.’ ‘The second one, and I pound this into all the producers and people that work with me,’ says Beers, ‘is ‘We will always, always be a network’s solution – never their problem.”