Colby Donaldson talks Top Shot spin-off, Jake, and the show’s surprising challenge

Top Shot ends its third season tonight, and I talked to both host Colby Donaldson, the Survivor alum, and the show’s executive producer about the History Channel series. It is spawning a a spin-off, and also faces an unusual challenge, balancing competition and the real-life drama that turns off some viewers.

I first talked to Colby about hosting in the summer of 2010, when he talked about emulating Jeff Probst. And while there are still some similarities, Colby has absolutely come into his own as a bad-ass host. “I think season one I was feeling the pressure because it was my first hosting gig,” he told me. “It’s become more fun for me because I no longer get nervous.”

My favorite line of Colby’s this season was when he told the competitors, “You are fucked today.” He told me that “the funny part about that comment … that was an offhand comment that wasn’t even supposed to make it on film. I’m just having a conversation with them. I couldn’t pass up the irony” that they’d be shooting the longest-range weapon in 65 MPH winds. “I never in a million years thought it would make it on television.” But, he added, “that is me, I’m always going to be having a good time with these guys.”

Colby, who watches the show that made him famous (“I’m still tuning into to Survivor, every week and every season”), is enthusiastic, to say the least, during his play-by-play. “My enthusiasm and intensity comes from the fact that I’m in the moment with these guys,” he said. “I’m a pretty loud guy out there on set,” he admitted, but said contestants know what to expect. In season one, they thought, “Who is this yahoo yelling over my shoulder here?” but now know his play-by-play is part of the game. “That’s the nature of the game on Top Shot: adapt to something that’s foreign,” including the host,” Colby said.

Executive producer Craig Piligian, who also produces Dirty Jobs and worked on Survivor in its early seasons, praised his host. “He’s part of the gun community. He’s a good shot, a really good shot. He really is involved with the show. I think he’s a great host. He’s good at getting you from point A to point B, he understands the thought process of the competitor because he was and still is a competitor.”

The production just completed filming season four, and part of that includes a spin-off on History’s H2 channel that is “an in-depth look at the look at all the weapons we have on Top Shot,” Colby told me. On that show, he’s been shooting the weapons the competitors use; he’s been shooting since he was six, and so he isn’t just faking his way through his interaction with weapons. “As the show has evolved, so have I, not only as a host, but as a marksmen,” he said, adding that “I learn and sponge from those guys [the experts] while we’re on set and in the van, driving to or from challenges.” Besides the shooting he does on the spin-off series, “I circle back at the end of the season and get some trigger time” with the weapons used in competitions, he said.

Colby continually praised the show’s production team, such as when he described a particular shot the slow-motion team set up for season four. “Those guys suspended the camera directly above a sniper rifle,” he said, which means we’ll “see in slow motion the entire shock wave ripple through the dirt.” The production team is “pushing the envelope” and that results in “some great action and some completely authentic TV,” Colby said. “Our production schedule is so tight, we’re trying to accomplish visually what a show like Survivor does with one-third the team,” he said. That means “most of our crew is all multitasking,” such as “constructing a challenge while running another.”

The producers have “learned. Our learning curve has been steep,” he said. Among the lessons: “simple is usually is better,” such as that “glass mason jars filled with liquid always work as targets” because “they just look good in slow motion.”

One interesting lesson, he said, has to do with the drama that draws people like me to the show. “We’ve learned that our nomination range is really not that similar at all to Tribal Council,” and he said, “I’m actually proud of this, that the nomination range has not become like Tribal Council.” That’s because the competitors already know who they’re going to vote for, and nearly always are making decisions based upon performance.

The word “reality” is used by reality TV competition productions to refer to the parts of the show focusing on human drama, like the scenes at the house on Top Shot, and Colby said they’ve also learned that “reality on Top Shot does not play well, does not work well from our fans. … We get a lot of backlash when that stuff happens,” and that includes ratings dropping during the episode. “We don’t need to pull out that drama; our viewers do not like that at all,” he said. “I know just from Twitter and the responses I get from fans every week, they can’t stand it.”

Still, sometimes it happens, as it did with Jake, who quit the show. Interestingly, Colby said, “I didn’t know about a lot of the drama until I saw it on TV.” As to Jake’s actions, he said, “I didn’t have a problem with his strategy or even the majority of his behavior, but I thought it was very telling of his character that he quit the competition after a challenge where he performed underwhelmingly.”

Although that kind of drama can pull in people who aren’t really into the weapons, “We lost a ton of viewers because of it,” Colby said, noting that people find it “refreshing it is to watch a competition reality show that doesn’t involve a lot of that high drama. … We’re very proud that the fans just like it for what it is, a straightforward competition.”

Jake’s exit, executive producer Piligian said, is “not something we wanted to have happen,” especially because it “took up a spot that someone else could have had. It is real, things implode sometimes. That’s what reality television is really about. It is a pressure cooker in there. People sometimes don’t make it. Things happen. That’s why these are fun shows to watch.” Still, here, all that matters is skill. “You don’t have to build alliances on Top Shot, you just have to shoot straight. If you shoot straight and breathe, you’ll win Top Shot.”

Still, Piligian says it’s “a really interesting head study when the guys are in the house” because “they’re getting head-fucked by each other the whole time they’re there.” He calls the show “a deep challenge” that engages the contestants on multiple levels. Piligian said, “I give them the speech before they start the show,” telling contestants, “stay in your head, don’t let it get to you.” But “they still let that pressure cooker get to them.”

Even though it’s not the source of a lot of drama, Piligian said that voting on the shooting range is “an important component” of the series, because “you’ve gotta let the teams make those decisions; you can’t start interjecting. The team has to make itself strong.”

“We’re always aiming for a broad audience, always,” he said, and that includes both the gun community and “people who want good dramatic TV with some cool shit in it. … Everybody who comes to watch it has a different experience; we’re hoping you have the experience you came for.” For those in the gun community, it’s provided a new kind of challenge that many people train for it, because they have to qualify on a range before they can be cast. “They’re really out there training” with multiple weapons, he said. “We do have the largest purse in the gun community at $100,000.” Gun enthusiasts have, he said, “embraced the show. In the beginning, not so much. Now, a lot.”

While Piligian promised that season four “amps up all the way” with “some really crazy challenges,” he said the show will stay true to its roots. “It’s a sport. We gotta keep true to what the gun community’s expectations are in that sport. You can’t go over the wall. You gotta keep it real or we’ll lose credibility.”

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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.