It’s been said that the hardest moments in crafting a reality television show occur when real life intrudes upon the proceedings. And nothing in life is more real than death.
The gritty, testosterone-fuelled programming coming from Thom Beers’ Original Productions, including mega-hits such as History’s Ice Road Truckers and Discovery’s The Deadliest Catch, puts the emphasis on what some might call “true grit’ – people doing hard jobs and doing them well. But the passing in February of last year of Captain Phil Harris, one of The Deadliest Catch’s central characters, gave Beers and the production team a formidable challenge – how should a docureality program handle the death of one of its stars?
“We’ve been part of Phil and the boys’ lives for five or six years and have had unlimited access from the beginning,” says Beers, recalling that Harris, following a debilitating stroke, wrote on a piece of paper that he wanted the team to keep filming and follow the story to its conclusion. “It was really tough to make but we went right back to the rawest, most basic form of filmmaking. I said I wanted the length in the shots and wasn’t going to worry about pacing or special effects. I just wanted to make it raw and real.” The episode that ended with Harris’ passing, titled “Redemption Day,” drew a record audience of 8.5 million, the third highest audience for a Discovery program behind Raising the Mammoth and Walking with Dinosaurs. And while Beers may not admit it in casual conversation, it also served to elevate the perception of reality programming for a brief moment amongst its naysayers. Whatever your stance on unscripted programming, you will be moved by the last minutes of “Redemption Day.”
There were other challenges that emerged for The Deadliest Catch, including a lawsuit launched by Discovery against captains Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand for allegedly stopping work on a spin-off special. The fracas saw the Hillstrands and Captain Sig Hansen quit the show, only to return when a settlement was reached. The lawsuit was dropped.
Despite the challenges, there were plenty of triumphs for Beers and company in 2010, including an ever-increasing international presence through the distribution of various titles by FremantleMedia Enterprises. In 2009, after 10 years as a proud independent prodco, Original Productions sold a 75% stake to FremantleMedia, and Beers has nothing but good things to say about the arrangement.
“Probably contrary to what other people may say about their deals, I couldn’t be happier with the deal I made with Fremantle. It’s the greatest relationship I ever had,” he enthuses. “Their constant question to us is, ‘Are we leaving you alone enough?’” Beers says the company has ‘handily’ beaten its projections over the last two years, and that it’s “managed to hold on to the intellectual property and the international rights on a number of series, and [Fremantle] has been very happy with that pipeline.”
As for the year ahead, Beers is bullish on another Discovery project – a 10-part series focusing on American farmers that the Original CEO and exec producer calls “a real hybrid, going after the natural history space that the BBC has owned forever, but also capturing the same sort of drama that you’d find in Deadliest Catch.” Casting is underway, with shooting to begin in the spring. Further forays into scripted programming are also in the cards, with three scripts being developed. ‘When we get into real worlds like ice roads and oil rigs or coal mining, we always secure life rights of people we find interesting,” Beers explains.
Beers is also “messing around” with game show ideas and competition projects that combine Las Vegas and rollerball. While some of the ideas may seem a tad outlandish to some, it bears mentioning that Beers is the producer that wanted to produce a series about a four-foot-tall psychic, with the title of Small Medium at Large. He takes the work seriously, but keeps entertainment value front of mind. “It’s all fun stuff,” he says with a laugh, and you’re inclined to believe him.
You’ve said your time at Turner Broadcasting System, working with Ted Turner, taught you very much about the production business. Are there others that you’ve learned from and continue to learn from?
”ve been lucky enough to be around some really bright people who’ve helped guide the way for me. It’s more by example than by teaching. Ted Turner used to say, ‘I consider Turner Broadcasting to be like a cow. And what you want to do when you butcher a cow is make money on every piece of it, including the moo.’