Some of the hottest shows on cable these days are about people who have no TV.
Take Discovery Channel’s Alaskan Bush People, in which a character shows how to properly prepare grasshoppers by pulling their heads off and allowing the guts to leak out before laying them out in the sun to dry. Add a little salt and pepper, and dinner is served.
Not hungry? Viewers are lapping up the year-old show, as well as other “off-the-grid” reality series that have become very appetizing.
Shows like Alaskan Bush People, History’s Mountain Men, FYI’s Unplugged Nation and Animal Planet’s The Last Alaskans — as well as rugged competition reality shows, such as Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid and History’s Alone — are providing viewers with an aspirational look at an alternative lifestyle that eschews modern technology for life off the beaten path.
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Some of the characters in these reality shows are hardcore naturalists who have no need for civilization; others are average people who are seeking the simple life. Some are new at it; others have been doing it for generations.
On these shows, hunting knives are more valuable than smartphones, and cable-network programmers say it’s the fantasy of unplugging from civilization that draws viewers in droves.
Off -the-grid shows comprised nearly half of the 10 most-watched reality shows during the third quarter of 2015, according to Nielsen. Alaskan Bush People, which profiles a family born and raised in the Alaskan wilderness, was the most popular reality show of the period, averaging 3.6 million viewers.
“There’s an aspirational element to the show that really communicates with people — we’ve always had that as a backbone to the program,” Russ McCarroll, senior vice president of development and programming for History, said. “These ideas of managing to live and doing hard work in places that are beautiful are what appeal to viewers.”
During times frought with threats of cyber-terrorism, economic difficulties and military conflicts, History’s Mountain Men — which follows the real-life challenges of six guys who use their survival skills to live in desolate mountain areas across the country — attracts both male and female viewers with escapist content that focuses on a simpler life where people control where and how they live, McCarroll said.
Mountain Men averaged more than 3 million viewers during its fourth and most recent season, which concluded last week.
“There’s a lot of doom and gloom stories out there, whether it’s the breakdown of the economy or the environment changing, so there’s a great appeal as to whether to sustain one’s self and to find out, if everything really did go the wrong way, could I survive on my own?” McCarroll said. “You even see that in pop culture, with the success of series like [AMC’s scripted zombie dramas] The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead. These shows appeal to the same type of thing but in a very different way.”
Animal Planet vice president of development Kurt Tondorf said a bit of romanticism surrounds the idea of men and women living off the land and killing or growing the food they eat, rather than going to the local grocery store to buy a salad or to a fast-food restaurant to purchase rotisserie chicken.
The network’s freshman series The Last Alaskans follows a handful of families allowed to live in a now-banned Artic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Unlike other reality shows in the genre, Tondorf said, The Last Alaskans — which has been renewed for a second season — features no narration, allowing the characters in the series to literally speak for themselves and for their lifestyles.
“People feel a lack of connectedness to the wilderness, and a great curiosity for those who want to live in such close connection to it,” Tondorf said. “We’re always striving to find those kinds of authentic individuals who live lives that almost reflect the great pioneering spirit that as children we all read about.”
FYI’s Unplugged Nation puts city dwellers into an environment where they must choose whether to return to civilization or transition to a more self-sufficient way of life.
The choice for urbanites to escape the concrete jungle of corporate America for a simpler existence in a beautiful, natural environment has resonated with FYI’s core 18-to-49-year-old audience, said Gena McCarthy, senior vice president of programming and development.
Unplugged Nation averaged 230,000 viewers during its summer run, above the network’s 178,000 viewers for the third quarter, according to Nielsen.
“Unplugged living is a genuine alternative lifestyle movement,” McCarthy said. “Many people are passionate about raising their families this way as an aspirational goal. There’s a play-along factor for viewers who can fantasize about whether they could hack it in the situations and the variety of homes we share with them in the show.”
DIY Network began exploring the theme “Building Off the Grid” with one-off specials that have grown into a franchise. Episodes have covered creating cabins in wilderness areas of Alaska, using cargo bikes to haul material for a new retreat in the Rocky Mountains, building mud-and-straw homes in Washington State and constructing a 30-foot-tall yurt in rural Montana (Yurts So Good).
The Scripps Networks Interactive outlet recently picked up the six-episode series Jon & Etta Go Off the Grid, now in pre-production, which will see Jon and Etta Sepp (and their 1-year-old daughter) create an off -the-grid bison ranch on the open range in Hot Springs, Mont.
Allison Page, general manager of Scripps’s DIY, HGTV (whose mainstay House Hunters franchise has also gone off the grid) and Great American Country, said DIY’s “BOTG” specials had the pleasantly surprising effect of drawing more women than expected, given the male-skewing topic.
Going off the grid fits into DIY’s and HGTV’s growing number of “fantasy” shows, featuring enticing scenarios such as building a dream home on the beach, Page said. “There are ideas that have a romantic chord to them that you dreamed of as a child, or that you wish life could be simpler in a tiny home. They are all different manifestations of what people dream of living.
“I think viewers like seeing something where they can envision themselves,” she said. “It’s that aspirational-attainable balance. I might or might not do it, but I’m seeing someone who is, that could be me.”
For viewers who want a more edgy and exhilarating dive into the genre, competition shows like Discovery’s Naked and Afraid — where two contestants, a man and a woman, are challenged to live in a harsh environment with no tools or clothes — and History’s Alone, where contestants are literally left alone, with no camera crews following them, to survive by themselves in an unforgiving terrain for as long as they can, provided plenty of thrills for viewers and high ratings for networks.
Naked and Afraid and spinoff Naked and Afraid XL drew a combined 5 million viewers this past summer, while Alone garnered 2 million viewers, according to Nielsen. "[Naked and Afraid] showcases what individual human beings are made of," said series executive producer Joseph Boyle. "Living off the land in such an extreme way really shows what kind of mettle human beings have, and the people like to see individuals put in a position where they can show the triumph of the human will and human spirit in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable."
History’s McCarroll said he believes that the off-the-grid genre of programming will continue to thrive on television as technology continues to encroach on our everyday lives and people look for an escape to a simpler life.
‘There are a lot of people who go to work in an office or go to work in a cubicle, when in reality they’d rather be someplace that’s a little more inspiring,” he said. “We can take them there.”
Added Tondorf: “All of us get home after a hard day, and we can turn on the set to see these people who have marched to a different drummer all of their lives — there’s something about that kind of willingness to live a life that way that plays into a universal yearning that we all have.”
R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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