Big Numbers On A Beers Budget2/01/2008 7:00 PM Eastern
It was Christmas time in 1985. Thom Beers was living in New York City, coming out of a disastrous romance, drowning his sorrows in drink and shooting ad spots for what was then called the small screen.
Beers, now one of cable’s biggest hit makers, had just landed three commercials.
“The first one was California pitted prunes. This is a true story, as God is my witness. The second one was Scott toilet tissue and then Preparation H,” he recounted. “My f---king entire life and career was circling the toilet drain. It was the metaphor. I’m not kidding. I had to laugh about it.”
In the nick of time came relief. For four years, Beers had been trying to land a job with cable entrepreneur Ted Turner’s outfit in Atlanta. Finally, Turner Broadcasting System called and Beers was working in Georgia within a month, in January 1986.
He cut his teeth on nonfiction programming with TBS and ever since, Beers and his career have climbed upward. The 54-year-old TV producer has become synonymous with a seemingly endless string of adventure documdramas that rank among cable’s highest-rated nonfiction shows.
That hit parade has mainly been all about macho men: Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, where Alaskan crab fishermen risk life and limb on dangerous seas; Monster Garage, a competition to transform cars into swamp boats, robots or other “monster machines”; and The History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers, in which teamsters travel over treacherous temporary roads to deliver gear to remote diamond mines in Canada.
Beers is now CEO and executive producer of his own company, Original Productions. He owns a collection of motorcycles and vintage muscle cars. But, in the end, he is TV’s reigning king of testosterone-fueled content, producing action-filled docudramas that succeed in attracting hard-to-reach younger males.
“He knows the audience,” said Pat Mitchell, who was Beers’s boss at Turner and is now president of the Paley Center for Media in New York.
“He is a true populist, in a funny kind of way, and he’s not afraid to go with that,” Mitchell said. “A lot of producers sometimes end up talking down to the audience. Thom doesn’t. He really likes those guys who build bikes in their garages. And by the way, he can hang out with them and talk their language.”
|The Thom Beers Formula|
|For Making a Winning 'Docu-Soap’|
|— Linda Moss|
|Pick an intriguing location: Expose audiences to unfamiliar locales with a twist, for example, the dangerous Bering Sea off Alaska on Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch.|
|Expose an unexposed subculture: Beers’s shows depict the insular nature and emotional nuances of the particular subcultures he is chronicling, such as the cutthroat world of Texas oil wildcatters on truTV’s Black Gold.|
|Spotlight high risks, high rewards: The History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers risk crashing through the ice in remote Canada, but they can earn as much as $75,000 for two months of work.|
|“Cast” real people engaging in real pursuits: Beers casts his real-life shows with real people. In WE TV’s Twister Sisters, he trains the lens on storm chasers Peggy Willenberg and Melanie Metz, who have a tornado-tour business.|
|Create a catchy title: Good names attract viewers. Hence titles such as Small Medium at Large, a pilot for A&E Network about a 4-foot-tall psychic.|
|Covet the arc: Using his acting background, Beers believes in crafting dramatic story arcs, not just profiling individuals in unusual occupations. On Deadliest Catch, one episode features boat captain Johnathan Hillstrand rescuing overboard crab fisherman Josh White from the icy sea.|
As of late January, Beers’ Original Productions was working with nine different cable and broadcast networks on 13 series and three show pilots. Beers and his 250-person company have deals to create 142 hours of television, and he expects that to surpass 200 hours by year-end.
In the next few months, Beers not only has new seasons of Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers returning to the air, but roughly a half-dozen new cable shows, including Ax Men for History; Black Gold for truTV; and America’s Port and The Building for National Geographic Channel.
Beers is a showman who wore orange foul-weather gear from Deadliest Catch to the Emmys in 2006. But now he may need a Kevlar vest as he faces his biggest challenge yet: creating a two-hour primetime block for one of the Big Four broadcast networks, NBC.
General Electric’s Peacock network has ordered three shows, with 30 hours of programming all told, from Beers and his partners in the venture, Gail Berman and Lloyd Braun. That pair have a “first-look” development deal with NBC Universal.
Beers’s venture with their company, BermanBraun — hatched before the writers’ strike and announced in December — represents a risky, but perhaps necessary, experiment for NBC.
With broadcast losing audience to cable, NBC is looking to take a page from the medium, adding low-cost unscripted programs to its schedule, to augment pricey scripted shows.
Beers’s series cost around $500,000 to $600,000 per hour. For that, History pulled in an average of 3.2 million viewers for Ice Road Truckers last summer, reaching 4.8 million viewers in its finale.
By comparison, NBC’s ER is averaging about 8.7 million viewers, season to date.
But hour-long dramas such as ER can cost from $2 million to $3 million per episode. That’s two or three times the audience of Truckers — but four or five times the cost.
“So in essence, it’s a new economic paradigm, where they’re going, 'Listen, we can’t afford to do $3 million hours every show, so we’ve got to find those unscripted elements that really work for us,’ ” Beers said.
The test, of course, is whether his docudramas will attract broad audiences which are big enough to be considered a success for NBC.
Berman and Braun, former executives at the Fox broadcast network and ABC, respectively, believe that audiences don’t distinguish cable TV from broadcast anymore.
“We think that compelling television certainly does travel, and people will tune in if the shows are of great quality and are as compelling as what he’s [Beers] done in the past,” Braun said.
Beers, who often narrates his own shows, has found a winning formula for his “docu-soaps,” as he calls them. His series typically profile men with blue-collar jobs, such as crab fishermen, truckers, Texas oil wildcatters and Northwest lumberjacks.
“There is a real appetite out there, and a real appeal, for this good, old-fashioned, grabbing-your-crotch kind of machismo,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television. “Maybe it’s a retro appeal, but it is an appeal.”
Thompson characterizes Beers as “one of a handful of cable auteurs” with complete control over all aspects of a show and the ability to put a personal — and unique — stamp on it.
Not bad for a producer with working-class roots in Batavia, N.Y., 40 miles from Buffalo.
Some of Beers’s biggest hits revolve around garages, cars and choppers, and he developed an affection for all of them as a youth. His father worked as a garage service manager for Ford and Chevy, and Beers and his brother Tim, who is Original Productions’ chief financial officer, had a job there on weekends, checking inventory.
Garages represent the “the last male bastion,” according to Beers.
UNCONFINED TO A DESK
Those roots give Beers the ability to win the trust of his real-life protagonists, who toil in environs typically unfamiliar to most Americans. He gains access to their insular worlds.
Take the everyday heroes of Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers. They face potentially lethal danger — being lost overboard in frigid seas trying to snare Alaskan crabs, or possibly crashing into holes while hauling loads over frozen roads — in order to enjoy a big payday.
These men — and women — aren’t confined to an office, and neither is Beers.
“Thom doesn’t like to sit behind a desk,” said History senior vice president of development and programming David McKillop. “He really doesn’t have a desk. If you’ve seen his office, his desk is the wing of an airplane. That says something about him.”
Beers said he loves going on location for his shows, and maintains it’s a necessity for the first few episodes. By being on-site, Beers said he can identify and play up elements that add drama, like the claustrophobic feel of the truck cabs in Ice Road Truckers.
“A guy that can make a show about driving trucks exciting can find a story in anything,” said truTV executive vice president and general manager Marc Juris.
Beers thanked his yarn-spinning relatives — like his “Uncle Bones, a blind bookie” — for that skill.
“Growing up in a big Italian family, storytelling, that was our sport,” Beers said. “Everybody tried to out-tell a story from one generation to the next.”
As a young man in the Big Apple, Beers was an actor, studying with legendary director and teacher Lee Strasberg. In those days, Beers was rubbing shoulders with talents such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Paul Newman.
But Beers admits that he wasn’t a very talented thespian — “I sucked” — and that his main interest in acting “was more about meeting girls.”
He also worked as a playwright and did some directing, but ultimately shifted gears and began trying to make a living shooting commercials.
During this period, Beers said he became aware of Ted Turner, who had not only launched a satellite but was “doing really great stuff in television,” like the Peabody Award-winning Portrait of America, a five-year series. So Beers began his quest to get a gig in Atlanta.
During his 11-year stint at Turner, Beers held several posts, including vice president and supervising producer for Turner Original Productions, where he oversaw series for TBS Superstation, including National Geographic Explorer and The Jacques Cousteau Specials. At one point, Beers traveled the world as part of Turner’s international unit, doing documentaries on topics that Ted was passionate about, like population control.
At Turner, Mitchell said she and Beers sometimes had differences over programming. But she learned that his instincts about what draws an audience were spot on.
“I remember the first fight we ever had,” she said. “He wanted to do the story of Harley-Davidson as a documentary. And I thought that was kind of interesting, but I didn’t really think we should do it, for whole bunches of reasons. But he just fought and fought and fought.”
Beers pressed on and was so passionate, Mitchell finally relented and approved it.
The result was 1993’s Harley-Davidson: The American Motorcycle, featuring celebrity bike fans like Peter Fonda. “We did it, and it was … the most-watched show — without question — on TBS that year,” Mitchell said.
After Turner, Beers went to Paramount Television as a producer, working on the hit wildlife series Wild Things. In 1999, he started Original Productions. Beers’s wife Leslie is president of Amygdala Music, a unit of the company that scores its shows.
At Turner, Beers had worked with and befriended Steve Burns, then a producer of National Geographic Explorer and now executive vice president of content for National Geographic Channel.
When Beers started his company, Burns had moved on to Discovery Channel as senior vice president of production, and was calling Beers to do projects for the network.
Ultimately, Beers produced Monster Garage, Motorcycle Mania and Biker Build-Off for Discovery Channel.
Beers said he’s still “most proud” of Monster Garage, his company’s first hit, which debuted in 2002. He got the inspiration for the show’s premise one night in his slumber.
“I dreamt about turning a Mustang into a lawnmower, and I thought, what a great idea,” Beers said.
He credited Monster Garage and Motorcycle Mania with creating a whole new genre of programming, namely car and bike shows such as MTV’s Pimp My Ride.
“We really captured that gearhead world early and just ran out of the box with it,” Beers said.
Discovery Channel initially didn’t want to do Monster Garage, according to both Beers and John Ford, then president of Discovery Networks’ Content Group and now president of Discovery Channel.
In its early development, Monster Garage was very similar to TLC’s Junkyard Wars, in which several teams compete and use materials from a scrap heap to make a machine that does a specific task.
“I was told to kill it [Monster Garage] at one point,” Ford said.
He told Beers to make it different from the TLC show — eliminating the several teams it originally had, for example. The revamped Monster Garage premiered and quickly was a hit, generating a rating of more than 2.0, according to Ford.
“If it weren’t for John Ford … I’d never be here today,” Beers said. “I owe him big time for that.”
Deadliest Catch, Original Productions’ signature hit show, evolved out of two Discovery Channel programs. In fact, Burns said the first program he asked Beers to produce for Discovery was called Extreme Alaska, where Beers discovered the Alaska king crab fishermen.
“That’s what led to his great ascendancy as a terrific producer,” Burns said.
While shooting a segment on the fishermen, Beers was stuck with the men on the Bering Sea during a raging storm. He saw first-hand the danger of the job, and the emotional toll it took.
“I came back to Discovery and said I have an amazing television program for you, not just a little 12-minute segment,” Beers recalled. “I talked them into putting in some more money and I went back and shot the rest of the season.”
That footage became a special called The World’s Most Dangerous Job, which — several years later — became “a de facto pilot for Deadliest Catch,” said Ford.
The show debuted in 2005, and was a hit. Its third-season finale last June was the show’s highest-rated episode ever, with a 2.7 rating, drawing 3.85 million viewers.
Most importantly, Deadliest Catch became Beers’s template for his docu-soaps.
“Interesting location, interesting subculture, high risk, high rewards: That’s the formula,” he said.
FOUR IDEAS A MINUTE
Ford remains an admirer of Beers and his talent.
“He’s got an idea every four minutes and he also is great at identifying characters who are going to pop for viewers, whether it’s the captains on the Alaskan fishing boats or Jesse James on Monster Garage,” Ford said. “He’s good at real-world casting, if you will.”
He also throws himself into each show he does.
“Thom never grows up,” said Discovery vet McKillop, who was once executive producer of Deadliest Catch. “He ages, but he’s never grown up. And it’s that sense of passion and curiosity and energy that he brings to television.”
According to McKillop, one of the reasons Catch was such a hit was its surprising revelation about the dangers of harvesting a seemingly mundane food: The crab legs people scarf down at places like Red Lobster.
“It would almost be like if you were to take that crab leg … put your eye up to the inside and see these raging seas, and ice-covered boats and guys falling overboard bringing up these tons and tons of crabs — or bringing up empty pots,” McKillop said.
Beer’s next hit was Ice Road Truckers. The show was the brainchild of History executive vice president and general manager Nancy Dubuc, who came to Beers to produce the series. It debuted last summer and racked up blockbuster ratings.
“Thom has not only the production chops, but the storytelling chops, to get out there and do these kinds of shows,” Dubuc said. “When you know how to identify great characters; you know where the jeopardy is; and you know how to tell a great story, well, that’s TV.”
She also enlisted Beers to produce Ax Men, a show about Oregon lumberjacks, which will premiere in the next few months.
“The history of our nation, and the economy of our nation, was founded on this job,” Dubuc said. “It’s sort of the idea that the frontier has never closed. And Thom does a very good job at capturing the romance of that.”
NO ONE’S DIED
Original Productions’ crews are typically thrillseekers who don’t mind risking their lives, or at least limbs, on location for shows such as Deadliest Catch.
“Knock wood, no one’s died,” Beers said. “We’ve had caved ribs. We’ve had guys losing whole sets of teeth, arms broken, ligaments torn.”
For Ice Road Truckers, his staffers braved super-frigid weather.
“That was stupid cold, 40 below zero and just unbelievably cold, and my guys, they stuck out the whole season and I was so proud of them,” Beers said.
Now there are gals, too. Original Productions’ series for WE TV, Twister Sisters, just finished its run on the network. The show is about two females who run a Midwest tornado-chasing business and marks Beers’s bid, after failed attempts, to create programming for women.
Twister Sisters averaged a 0.3 rating, tying as the second-highest rated original WE shows this season. But the network hasn’t renewed it yet.
“It did very well for us and we also got a lot of promotion out of it,” WE general manager Kim Martin said. “The Twister Sisters were on Jay Leno and they were also on The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch [on CNBC].”
TruTV has high hopes for Black Gold, which Beers is producing and will premier in the second quarter.
“You think oil is really the purview of gigantic oil companies, and the days of the wildcatter are history,” Juris said. “In fact, there is this world of men and women who are drilling for oil with millions of dollars at stake. …You can become a millionaire overnight or lose it all in what feels like overnight. … A million different kinds of very powerful human emotions come into play.”
But cable networks are not Beers’s only masters any longer. This year, he has to satisfy the much larger maw of a broadcast network.
Cable is now “pulling 2.0’s or 3.0’s or 4.0’s” in ratings, hitting a “critical mass” of viewers, Beers said. That’s what attracted Braun and Berman to his shows, as prospects for NBC.
“Things that would be considered really big hits on cable now can be respectable enough to be low-end of the totem pole for broadcasting,” Ford said.
NBC hasn’t yet announced which night the two-hour program block will be scheduled for. But having the programs run back to back “minimizes that chance that any one show will get lost on a big-network schedule,” according to Braun.
They can be marketed as a block by the network, hopefully creating an evening-long destination for viewers.
Braun said he and Berman were “completely transfixed” by Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers, which is why they think Beers’s approach to docudramas will work for NBC.
“There are story arcs and character development inside that world, so that you really want to come back the next episode and see what how does this play out — hence the drama part of the equation,” Braun said.
Neither Berman nor Braun expect NBC to abandon scripted shows for Beers’s blend of documentaries and soap opera-like drama. But low-cost nonfiction that can draw viewers could be a gift to a broadcaster in this day and age of more networks, fewer viewers for each and the compressed economics that result.
With so much in the hopper this past December, Beers had lots to celebrate, more than two decades after his sad holiday in New York.
“He gave us a great Christmas gift,” Braun said.
It was king crabs, fresh from the Bering Sea.