August 7, 2008
Shows Try to Net Man Fans
By AARON BARNHART
American viewers plug in to American workers doing dangerous American jobs. Standing atop this luxury apartment building overlooking the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, it's easy to see why someone would want to make a reality TV show here - in 2004.
There was a time when viewers couldn't get enough of watching contestants sit around penthouse cribs whining about each other.
But that's changed. Audiences want action now. They want danger. They have what Thom Beers, the hottest producer in reality TV, calls "a hunger for authenticity."
That explains the emergence of the manly man show. Hit reality series like "Ice Road Truckers,""Dirty Jobs" and "Deadliest Catch" have fueled a wave of shows about dangerous jobs and the oddball characters, almost all male, who perform them.
And that's why I've come to the construction site of this 23- story luxury residence known as Evo South.
Wearing the mandatory hard hat and orange vest, I've spent the past few minutes dodging heavy equipment and walking through unfinished condos while my guide, Dan Jackson, yelled over the power saws.
"This will be the most fireproof building in Los Angeles," Jackson tells me, pointing out the sprinklers that will be placed every 3 feet throughout Evo South.
Jackson and his crews spent two years here, filming the construction for a new show on the National Geographic Channel called "L.A. Hard Hats."
To learn how "L.A. Hard Hats" got made is to learn a lot about where the reality TV business stands at this moment. And you can't get a better guide than Jackson, whose resume is a history of reality TV going back to the days when re-creating crimes was the hot trend.
From "Rescue 911" and "America's Most Wanted," he went on to make documentaries on military academies, the Harley-Davidson company and the science of plane-crash investigation.
In 2007 he was shooting a WEtv series, "Twister Sisters," with two female storm chasers and wound up in Greensburg, Kan., on the night an EF-5 tornado leveled the town.
Back in L.A., I get some more info about the building. Evo South was designed for LEED certification in energy efficiency and a buyer of a certain income bracket. A brochure describes Evo South's 311 units as "individually created and tediously refined by architect Craig Norman."
Before anything could be "refined," however, 3,500 tons of reinforced steel, or rebar, had to be forged and framed, 94 million pounds of concrete had to be poured and 170,000 feet of plumbing installed, followed by wood flooring, finished metal, sculpted glass, appliances and utilities.
It was this dirty and often treacherous work that appealed to National Geographic Channel. Like every other cable channel on the planet, National Geographic wanted to be in business with Jackson's employer, Original Productions.
Founded in 1999 by Thom Beers, Original was originally known for its "Motorcycle Mania" specials.
The host, a then-unknown mechanic named Jesse James, had a creative streak: In one memorable scene he built a gas tank by hand out of aluminum.
Their next collaboration, "Monster Garage," would make James a star and put Original on the map.
One of Beers' next creations was a two-part special on Alaskan crab fishing for Discovery channel.
The ratings prompted Discovery to order a series from him - "Deadliest Catch." It became a monster hit, and Original was off and running.
So far Original has produced "Ice Road" for History, "Deadliest" for Discovery, "Black Gold" for truTV, "Twister Sisters" for WEtv and "America's Port" for Nat Geo, to name a few. Soon it will make the jump to network TV, with "America's Toughest Jobs" for NBC.
"All I'm doing is putting people through the paces of something they already do," Beers said in an interview. "I just happen to have access to a lot of unique and dangerous jobs."
The people who work for Beers, like Jackson, are experts at distilling the drama out of everyday labor.
Fans know Hugh Rowland, the burly bearded driver seen on "Ice Road Truckers," by his nickname of "The Polar Bear," and Phil Harris, the crab fisherman featured in "Deadliest Catch," by his numerous job-inflicted injuries.
The premiere of "L.A. Hard Hats" is about the "rodbusters" who fashion and install hundreds of miles of steel used in the building.
That's followed by an episode about "mud men" - not "Mad Men" - who pour concrete over the rebar to give Evo South its basic structure.
Future hours of "L.A. Hard Hats" will feature plumbers, electricians and the men who install the glass facade, or "curtain wall," on Evo South's exterior.
Originally published by AARON BARNHART McClatchy Newspapers.
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