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Where do these crazy reality shows come from?

From "Gold Rush," Chris Doumitt shaves producer Ed Gorsuch's beard.

If you go home and turn on the Discovery Channel tonight, you'll find solid gold. In the form of hours of reality TV shows that follow independent gold miners, as they try to "strike it rich in the wilds of Alaska." Cue the dramatic music, please!

"Gold Rush" is just one of so many reality shows that focus on extreme work or hobbies. The show "Deadliest Catch," about fishermen in icy Alaskan waters, and "Ice Road Truckers," about -- well, you can figure out that one -- have been pretty big hits for the company Original Productions. Philip Segal is president. He sees no limit to the human endeavors that can make good TV.

"I mean, look, we do a show about competitive beard growing," he says. "Who knew that was a television series?"

The show is called "Whisker Wars," and in the trailer one of the characters explains, "Bearding is a sport...growing, cultivating and styling one's beard for the purposes of competing."

But it is getting harder to sell these shows to networks, Segal says. He remembers that it "used to be where we could show you some great character interviews and tell you a story and they'd say: Go do that."

Now the networks want to see polished scenes of the characters doing the thing the show is about, whether it's chainsaw sculpting, as in "Saw Dogs," or hunting mythical beasts, like in "Swamp People."

Hanging out on location, collecting stories and footage as it unfolds, takes more time and money upfront from the production company. Instead of asking for a pilot, networks usually commit to six or 10 episodes of shows like these from the get-go. The expectations for audience are different than network TV.

"You have to look at the ratings on a cumulative basis," says Larry Gerbrandt at Media Valuation Partners, "because they run each episode over and over again." That includes running the shows as marathons, hoping people binge on them.

When advertisers buy time on these cable reality slices-of-life, be it "Possum Groomers" or "Tightrope Welders," they know they're getting audience eyeballs bit by bit, over time.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.
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