Thom Beers: The Colony “is the most fascinating television series I’ve ever made”; reality Emmy categories are “ridiculous”

Thom Beers is reality TV’s only real auteur: When you watch one of his unscripted shows, you know it belongs to him and his Original Productions company, and not just because he frequently narrates his series. He single-handedly created an entire subgenre: the tough guy/tough job show best exemplified by his best series, Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, which ends its fifth, even more engaging season tonight. But he’s done a lot more than that, from Monster Garage to Pitchmen to a new scripted film based on crab fishermen he’s documented for years now.

When we talked late last week, Beers told me, “I’m involved in basically every series. I look at every rough cut, every fine cut. I’m on location with the producers. I love this; this is the world I live in.” He frequently gave credit to his crew and staff, though, by referring to his company with the first-person plural: “We create genres here, not just television shows.”

Their shows have gotten Emmy nomination love, but not the genres. I asked Beers about the Academy’s absurd categories for reality TV–Deadliest Catch is nominated in the generic, catch-all nonfiction category along with PBS’ Masters, for example, and the other two reality categories aren’t much better. Beers said, “I think it’s ridiculous. There are an incredible amount of great documentary series out there, and this category, it’s an anthology category, and I just don’t understand it at all. When you’ve got an awards organization that gives away two Emmys–two Emmys–for hair styles, you’d think maybe they’d figure out this incredible genre that represents over 35 percent of television might be worth more than three awards. It’s ridiculous.”

Beers newest show, The Colony, airs its second episode on Discovery tonight, and follows 10 people trying to function in a constructed post-apocalyptic world. Beers was drawn to the concept because “I haven’t missed a post-apocalyptic film since the ’60s, I’ve loved them all; I love that genre. So why not put people pressed up against something” we could all face? The results of that experiment were revealing.

“Every day it surprised me, I’m telling you. This is the most fascinating television series I’ve ever made in my life,” Beers told me, adding that he was amazed at how quickly the volunteers “pretty much accept the situation and use their own ingenuity in a collective effort. … They realized very quickly that they had to work together, because if not, they would all fail–and I think that’s as real as it can get.” He said that cast bonded so much they now have a private blog that they use to communicate with each other.

With its reality occurring inside an artificial context, The Colony takes his shows in a new direction, as did the recent scripted film that aired on Discovery called Deadliest Sea, although he argued that his resume includes a broader range. But he wants to “Why not take that same information we have and turn them into scripted dramas and movies?” He says that in their docudramas, “the backgrounds are fascinating” and are great subject matter, so “we’re trying to expand our brand.” Beers told me he’d like to do scripted versions of both Verminators and Pitchmen.

Speaking of the latter show, which ended its first season just after its star Billy Mays died, he said that it’s about “what sacrifices [inventors] will go through,” and it didn’t lose that with Mays’ death. “What we lost was the greatest pitchman in the history of the world,” he said. Therefore, Pitchmen‘s recently announced second season, Beers revealed, will “probably” focus on “two or three young pitchmen and let Sully mentor them all.” Beers added that “we certainly hope and wish” Billy Mays III, Billy Mays’ son, will be on camera as part of the second season.

As to other series, Beers wouldn’t talk about his upcoming series about coal miners, but told me there “there’s plenty more” tough jobs to profile. “As long as you keep that high risk, high reward world, I don’t think the audience will get tired of it; I think they’re more interested in those reality worlds than the contrived worlds. And if you tell a good story–and I think that’s what differentiates us from a lot of other production companies is the fact that we’re pretty darn good storytellers,” Beers said.

One of those is an upcoming swordfishing show, Swords that will air on Discovery, which he said is “a terrific series.” That came out of his 2007 deal with NBC to produce three docudramas, which started and ended with America’s Toughest Jobs, another genre-breaking show that I think NBC did a good job of killing by moving it around its schedule.

“The problem that we had was that whole block was made for an interesting play for a Saturday night,” Beers said, “make it basically doc night, make it reality night.” But, he said, “my market and my audience is easily young males. Those 18-34 males they just come to my shows; I don’t know what it is, but that’s my audience, and it’s a great demographic.” And they didn’t tune in to the debut opposite football.

Ironically, his shows can sometimes draw more viewers than network television. “Look at my ratings and demographic on Discovery with Deadliest Catch: I beat two networks last week,” he said. Back in mid-June, Discovery announced that the Tuesday episode was the number-one show on all of television among people 25 to 54, men 25 to 54, and men 18 to 49.

Beers is developing two shows with networks, but he told me, “I’ve got great relationships with Discovery and History. They trust me and give me these chances. … The great part about them is they nurture and trust the producer, whereas a network–there are a lot of experts in network.”

If they’re smart, they’ll all trust his expertise, because on both network and cable, Thom Beers is the expert at crafting compelling, dramatic television out of real life.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.