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How Gold Rush, Discovery’s most-popular show, is produced

Gold Rush star Parker Schnabel. (Photo by Discovery Channel)

The most-popular show on the Discovery Channel is Gold Rush, a reality series that follows modern-day gold miners in Colorado and the Yukon territory. It’s like Deadliest Catch on land: a search for elusive and profitable products of nature, endlessly repetitive tasks, and grizzled characters who audiences have become connected to.

Gold Rush’s season eight debut last Friday was the top non-sports show on all of television, including broadcast networks, and Discovery said in a press release that among men ages 25 to 54, the show is the third-most popular show on all of cable TV, following The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.

So how does Gold Rush (Discovery, Fridays at 9), which is produced by Raw TV, maintain that interest over eight seasons and more than 100 episodes?

“That is the challenge: How do we make what we do interesting? How do we make the stories of guys who dig in the ground and wash rocks and look for little bits of metal—how do we make that interesting year after year, and come up with a story that people want to see?”

That’s Ed Gorsuch, the series producer for Gold Rush, who spends April through October of every year in the field with the gold mining and television production crews. He told me that the production constantly asks: “How can we make this better, more interesting, more engaging than the previous season? What is the fresh idea this season? What’s going to be different?”

The focus of the show’s story can be on things like the miners’ season target, but Gorsuch said “the characters and their dynamics” matter more. “We have to care about the gold, too. Why do I care if this character wants to get x amount of gold? What’s the personal investment for this?” he said.

Viewers do care. “I’m always amazed that people are as invested in the characters and their struggles as they are. That’s very fulfilling to see,” Gorsuch said. The miners are “quite gracious; they’re genuine people. … I’ve traveled with Parker quite a bit through airports through the States, and he always gets recognized.”

Fans also travel far to see the miners.

“Really from season two on, since being up in the Yukon, people have shown up,” Gorsuch said, even though the mining sites are “not an easy place to get to. And there’s people that show up just to see the miners. We’ve had families show up. We had a guy with a motor home drive up with his family from Louisiana.”

It’s not just Americans and Canadians. “We have a lot of Germans come out as well; for some reason, it’s incredibly [there], and they seem to want to make the journey,” he said. “It’s a surprise to me that people are willing to make that journey, but it says something about the popularity of the show.”

How Gold Rush is produced

Gold Rush season 8 just concluded filming last week, the same week the season premiered; meanwhile, the production just delivered a rough cut for episode 12 and yesterday, started to plan Gold Rush season 9.

It takes about half the year to gather enough footage for a season: 25 weeks of filming, starting the third week of April until mid-October.

“We are there the whole time; we are filming everything we can. But we don’t just turn the cameras on and shoot randomly. We do focus on a story or character; we do try to have a plan each day or at least each week on what we want to emphasize,” series producer Ed Gorsuch told me.

The television plan starts with the miners’ own plans, and producers decide what stories they’ll focus on from there.

Seasons are “always built around their mining plan, what they want to do, and then we try to bring shape or context to it, and hopefully make it entertaining,” Gorsuch said.

“They’ll come up with 10 different ideas and one of them will really stick, hopefully—one will be the thing we’re going to hang a season on. That’s the big idea; that’s what we’re going to choose to emphasize. And then it’s the give and take about how do we tell that story with them,” he said.

Just telling the miners what to do doesn’t work for well for Gold Rush.

“I find that with the miners, you go with the flow,” Gorsuch told me. “Whenever we get in the way and try to bring shape to something that doesn’t go with the flow of what they want to do, we fail. The more we can be in sync with them and work with them, the better. The shows are better.”

Years ago, season one cast member Jimmy Dorsey said in an interview that the show was “scripted from the beginning” and said producers “knew exactly what they wanted to see out of the program,” though he also said that “the plans were made, but the footsteps were ours. They actually direct you into these situations. It became very real.”

Gorsuch said definitively that “the show is not scripted.”

“We work off of a mining plan so we have an outline of what they want to do. We go, What’s your big-picture plan? And then we try to put them on a board in some order, because we don’t want to have it all happen in one episode,” he said. “There’s no scripts written; the edit doesn’t feed them what to do. It comes the other way around; the miners do what they’re going to do, and we give shape to it. And that is the ideal thing.”

How Gold Rush handles miners who rarely use the word ‘gold’

Because Gold Rush is a television show, and because they don’t film 24/7, the production has asked the miners to repeat something important that wasn’t filmed.

“Occasionally, discussions will happen off-camera—Parker will go talk to Rick over dinner one night and we weren’t filming it. The next day, we show up and they’ve got equipment in a different part of the claim, and they’re doing something new. We’re like, What happened here? We’ll go find out and we’ll ask Parker and Rick to have that conversation on camera again for us because we need a start to that story,” Gorsuch said.

In addition, the miners sometimes have to be prodded to be clearer.

Gorsuch told me that “they understand what they’re doing very well,” but “most people don’t speak in clear terms—they say ‘this’ and ‘that’ and ‘stuff,’ and the never use the proper nouns. They rarely use the word gold—you’d be surprised how often miners don’t say the word gold. We have to prompt them to give us a clear sense of their idea, their plan, and use the word ‘gold’ as often as possible.”

Having miners talk about their experience is important for Gold Rush, because “we can tell the story in the field” rather than shoot footage, edit it together, and then return to “shoot wrap-around interviews” like other shows do, Gorsuch said.

“We try to have our miners narrate the experience. We wear them out with our curiosity, but it’s so  we get those moments of decision. We try to capture it live because that’s really the best moments,” he said.

The miners do sometimes push back against those demands.

“In terms of making TV, they’re very savvy to what we do. After eight seasons of doing this and having the same people around them asking them the same questions, they kind of know what we want,” Gorsuch said. “It’s great when they decide to cooperate and play ball with us, and don’t take a lot of prompting. And other times, they make us work for it. Parker will say, Well, figure it out. What do you think I’m doing? He likes to test our knowledge of mining.”

Despite planning from both the miners and the production, things change during the season—and that includes what’s ahead during season 8.

“There’s a lot of twists and turns that were unexpected,” Gorsuch said. “When I talk to them at the beginning of the season and they give me a mining plan, it doesn’t mean it always works out the way they plan. And there’s some things that happened that were completely unexpected this year that I think the audience will be surprised to see.” He added, “I’ve seen more gold this year than I have in many seasons, and that’s exciting.”

“Gold mining is a challenge,” he said. But “they’re real people doing a real job.”

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