Discovery Channel’s reality competition series Naked and Afraid has been a ratings juggernaut for the network since its debut in 2013. Over its four seasons the series, featuring a pair of survivalists each week who have to cope with harsh environments without clothes, water or shelter, has averaged more than 3 million viewers. A freshman spinoff series, Naked and Afraid XL, which puts 12 survivalists into the elements in a 40-day challenge, also generated more than 3 million viewers this past summer.
Naked and Afraid executive producer Joseph Boyle strips the series down to examine its success and appeal to viewers in a conversation with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead. Boyle, who also served as executive producer for Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, also discusses the potential of removing the infamous pixels in the series in a wide-ranging interview, an edited version of which follows.
MCN: What has been the biggest selling point of Naked and Afraid?
Joseph Boyle: I think for me what is interesting in something like Naked and Afraid is that it showcases who individuals really are. A challenge this intense and living that way off the land in such an extreme way really shows what kind of mettle you have. I think that the people like to see individuals put in a position where they can show basically the triumphs of the human will and spirit.
MCN: Plus it doesn’t hurt that the participants are naked.
JB: Of course there’s the nakedness thing. I think this is relevant — clothing is our first line of defense and shelter that we have in any given situation, so stripping people down to the very barest of bones — pardon the pun — is really amplifying all of those factors that go into survival. Starting from literally a place of nothing makes for really the most authentic starting point in a challenge like this.
MCN: Are people living vicariously through the characters of Naked and Afraid?
JB: We’re actually getting a chance to look back in time. I think the Adam and Eve comparisons are very obvious, and it gives us a chance to look back at ourselves as the original hunters and gatherers — the roots of who we are as human beings. Like a lot of television, Naked and Afraid takes us to places and situations that we might want to go to, and that’s a huge part of it because we shoot it on virtually every continent, save Antarctica. We’re in amazing situations and amazing locales showing just how adaptable and resourceful human beings are.
MCN: Are you surprised that the whole living off the land genre has taken off?
JB: No. There’s a lot of talk about authenticity — it’s more of a buzzword than ever before — but I think people have always craved that type of programming, even going back to Deadliest Catch. It offers people a chance to see seemingly normal people in extraordinary circumstances performing in extraordinary ways. I think that’s a huge draw, and it always has been. For us, even though it’s two naked people trying to survive in a really harsh location, to me there is heroism and frailty that comes out every single time. It’s the kind of television I want to watch.
MCN: You’ve expanded the franchise to Naked and Afraid XL — are there any other plans to further spin it off?
JB: We’re always trying to think of new ideas — XL is a fantastic and very natural expansion of what we’re doing, so we’re always considering what’s next. In this day and age in our industry, innovation in all forms is where we have to be, so it’s something that we’re always talking about.
MCN: Is there a possibility of creating an uncut, unedited version of Naked and Afraid without the pixels?
JB: No, I don’t think so, because it’s outside of the point. It would be a distraction to the storytelling we’re trying to do. I suppose if we were in a world where nudity wasn’t an issue at all, then the show would be fully nude, but it’s one of those things where nudity would be a complete distraction, so I can’t imagine ever doing that.