TV Reality, Though, Isn’t All That Real
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
Comes down to reality, and it’s fine with me, ‘cause I let it slide. —Billy Joel
Like it or not, Reality TV has discovered Montana. Here at the Montana Pioneer, we can attest to that fact, given the various inquiries and overtures that have come our way from professionals in the business.
With a website (mtpioneer.com) dedicated to Montana-based content, including outdoor and adventure related stories, and a 24 year history writing and publishing material dealing with Montana, it seems we’re a no brainer for Cable TV channels and production companies seeking connections to off-beat, unusual, and dangerous goings on in the Treasure State.
The latest fascination is mountain men. You may have noticed a new reality show on the History Channel of the same name, although we were approached by the Discovery Channel on the subject, and a producer as well, searching for real-life mountain men in modern day Big Sky country.
But seriously—mountain men? We haven’t seen any of those for over a century, and it seems folks in southern California imagine Montana as a place where scraggly characters in coonskin caps with long rifles and bowie knives live off the land, as if wilderness areas were not federally designated and strictly regulated. Living amongst so many eight lane freeways, malls, and with a Starbucks on every other corner, inquiring Los Angelinos displayed a curious lack of understanding about Montana in their interactions with us, as if Montana were some land that time forgot, or people here somehow live and survive in remote areas, illegally, hunting out of season, and squatting on land that belongs to either state or federal government or that is private property.
It may come as a surprise that we live in the 21st century, not the 17th, and we penned an email to that effect after having received the inquiry from the Discovery Channel, and after carefully weighing, frankly, weather there was something to be gained (they say TV pays well). This editor responded to the request to be put in touch with a “mountain man” by conveying that there aren’t any, not any more, just as there aren’t Indians living as they did 200 years ago, because in Montana, as with the rest of the country, such ways of life and the freedom and hardships that go with them no longer exist—we are now civilized (though some may disagree).
Montana, like the rest of the country, is a place constrained by state and federal laws. And one is reminded of Woodrow Kaul’s remark in Lonesome Dove when he said, speaking of a planned cattle drive, “I wanna’ see that country [Montana] before the bankers and lawyers get it.” Well, they got it, along with the government, and you could try hacking it on the lam in the wilderness (like infamous criminals Dan and Don Nichols, often erroneously described as mountain men) but you would be living outside the law, and it’s just not happening, not for well over a hundred years, not since places like Montana attained statehood.
Reality TV producers, though, are not all that concerned about reality (you knew that). Their goal is ratings, to which reality takes a distant back seat. One fellow in the business suggested to me, for example, while discussing a concept for a show, that Kim Kardashian’s wedding to professional basketball player Kris Humphries, and their subsequent divorce, was orchestrated for entertainment value, as content (if not, it was certainly seized upon to capture viewers). We cannot assert the former as a fact, but that someone well acquainted with the business thought it probable tells us a lot about reality.
A less salacious example turned up in a July airing of Mountain Men, when Montana “mountain man” Tom Oar found his truck would not start, supposedly necessi-tating a 5 mile walk to the main road, as if a camera crew were not there to give him a ride.
In other words, Reality shows aren’t real, they’re not a window into the lives of ordinary people—they’re set up and edited for maximum effect like a rigged game show. We all knew that, had we bothered to think about it. It’s just that the shallowness of attention generated by their content, or aversion to same, forestalls scrutiny. Kind of like watching professional wrestling.
The History Channel’s new show Mountain Men (Thursdays, 6 p.m. MST) seizes on the historical mountain man mystique while bypassing any exposition of actual mountain men of history, a conscious strategy evidenced in the channel’s new motto, which covers for its abandonment of content related to its name—History, Made Every Day.
Mountain Men features people who indeed live off the grid in remote areas, but not necessarily off the land, lives removed from the rest of America, but with the advantage of proper houses, SUVs, modern technology, and even a bush plane to come and go.
This is the History Channel, mind you, presenting a show called Mountain Men, proof that, just as Reality TV in not about reality, the History Channel is no longer about history. They might at least bring in actual historical figures as part of the conversation—the John Colters, Jim Bridgers, Liver Eatin’ Johnsons. Or how about a mini-series on mountain men of the Old West, something HBO or A&E might find as compelling, as say, Hell on Wheels?
The men featured in the History Channel’s Mountain Men are serious outdoorsmen, to be fair, yet have access to modern conveniences. We expect, more over, given the nature of Reality TV programming, that off camera they utilize more of those conveniences than the show reveals. Tom Oar, though, who lives in northwestern Montana on the Yak River, looks the part, and could be perhaps a reincarnation of Liver Eating Johnson, as does Marty Meierotto (when he chooses to dress accordingly), who lives part-time in a cabin 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle with his wife Dominique.
Eustace Conway lives “off the land” in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. He also lives a life set apart from modern America, but in Reality TV fashion to capture viewer attention “personality conflict” is introduced into the show as he interacts with his ne’re do well helper, later replaced by a more competent fellow, but with whom one ought to expect disagreements. In Reality TV world, personality conflict ranks as the highest priority in terms of content, in order to involve viewers emotionally in the show, and so bickering and accusations are a frequent component.
My first experience with Reality programming (including watching it) came when a major production company solicited leads from the Montana Pioneer for a Montana-based show. With the success of Axmen (based in part in Montana), these producers were looking for more Montana-related content featuring dangerous activity in remote areas that might capture the imagination of the viewing public. Unfortunately, in TV world, as with movies, books, music, and chain restaurants these days, the fix was in against creativity and originality. Better to imitate that which has already racked up ratings and brought in revenue, and so producers try to replicate Meet the Kardashians in Montana, or Swamp People on the Yellowstone. Trying to get something produced that is genuine, substantive, or that represents the actual reality of life in Montana is probably impossible (we still, though, have an iron in the fire, a Montana-based concept based on a way of life that is unique, dangerous, and fascinating—professional inquiries welcome).
Sadly, producers emphasize conflict between characters, petty personal issues, or some connection to a big new movie or TV show—we want Survivor, they’ll say, except in Montana, or whatever is in vogue at the moment, or on screen.
Presently, that happens to be all things red neck (their term, not ours). Probably the most commer-cially viable concept for a Reality TV show, at the moment, would be Red Necks doing something stupid or dangerous in Montana or Alaska. The Red Necks should argue and have personal issues with one another to propel viewer interest and fill otherwise empty airwaves (and minds?) with something just a bit more compelling than nothing.
This is, of course, why television content is so unsatisfying (Mountain Men is actually not that bad, owing to the fact that we learn something about the people featured, but it fails to rival the appeal of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Pawn Stars, both of which entertain and inform (without petty conflicts), when compared, at least, to the emptiness of the overall Reality TV genre.
Most of the time, as Pioneering minds have discovered, TV is an empty experience. You know that. Yet we have found here, after almost 25 years of publishing, that ordinary people respond exceedingly well to quality content that challenges their imaginations and intelligence (presented, yes, with flair and a splash of tasteful hype). This builds a loyal readership and simul-taneously serves advertisers seeking the attention of potential customers, proving therefore to be a successful business model, one that would work as well in TV world (and that has in various instances). What a waste then, given the ubiquitous nature of the medium, its potential to educate, inform, and yes, entertain, that it has so little to show for itself.
It was P.T. Barnum who said no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people (politicians certainly recognize that dynamic). It is a philosophy fully active in the entertainment industry. Yet that has not been our experience after a quarter century with this endeavor, in which history and in-depth articles (along with celebrity and show business-related content) have proven to garner and hold “viewer” attention rather well.
We shall see what comes of this, and if our concept actually becomes, well, reality, and hope that one day reality will indeed become a priority for reality-based programming.
Until then, let’s call it fiction.
As it was written, long, long ago in the storied texts of a distant land—Lead us from the unreal to the real.