'Swamp People' to 'Mudcats': Down-home TV
Ditto ice road truckers and deadly catches. Why chill where it's chilly?
Today's hottest docusoaps feature warm weather and rustic adventures. Their stars are Louisiana gator chasers and Oklahoma catfish grabbers, Texas barrel racers and Kentucky snake handlers, even bayou billionaires and, when they're on the road, hillbillies hitting the Hamptons.
What's that show nipping the Nielsen heels of MTV buzz magnet "Jersey Shore"? Why, it's History's "Swamp People." The third-season boat-along with Cajun gator-getters regularly takes Thursday cable's No. 2 slot -- and managed March 8 to outshoot Snooki in total viewers.
That same edition of "Swamp People" also bested every show on NBC. Take that, you "Office" drones!
What's up with so many down-home drawls?
"I think people like to be surprised by something happening in their own country they didn't even realize existed," says Dirk Hoogstra, History's senior vice president of development and programming. He kicked off the country trend with "Swamp People" in August 2010, a month before the launch of Animal Planet's "Hillbilly Handfishin'."
While Animal Planet eyes the Oklahoma art of hand-grabbin' giant catfish, Hoogstra's History hangs with Louisiana bayou hunters battling hard-chompin' 700-pound reptiles -- elemental tests made real to modern man.
"Here we are, living this fast-paced life where everything is crazy," Hoogstra says. "And we look at these people making their own way, as their own boss, in an environment that's almost prehistoric and beautiful. It's aspirational."
Your 'average' TV viewer
That's one way to look at cable's flood of folksy folks whom urban dwellers might otherwise call hicks, with their ZZ Top beards and drawled "y'alls." But there's a contrary perspective on TV's bucolic trend. "A good portion of who watches television is Middle America," says Marc Berman, who analyzes viewership for the industry's much-read TV Media Insights daily ratings report. He may be a lifelong Long Islander (living in Baldwin), but Berman has made his name by understanding how "average" viewers across the entire country respond to programs. He says these rural shows feature "everyday people that viewers can relate to, who feel familiar, who we feel comfortable watching."
Seems some viewers are outside looking in, while others see themselves on-screen. Either way, reality's new and mostly Southern wave plays like an anti-Bravo reaction to the way that channel deluged us with ritzy "real" housewives, debonair design experts and trendy top chefs. Today's just-folks docusoap stars are most comfortable outdoors -- hunting, fishing and shooting guns. They go indoors for family dinners and beauty pageants. Many programs show three generations side by side in daily life. And they tend to overtly stress, as does this week's premiere episode of A&E's "Duck Dynasty," that "Everything starts and ends with family. We're a family first, and a business second."
The business does provide the series peg. The dynasty of Louisiana's hirsute Robertson clan made millions by refining and hand-making the mouth-blown duck call. "I live by a code," says designer brother Jase, who bridles under business brother Willie. "If you're too busy to duck hunt or catch fish, you're too busy."
Also putting money in its place is the newly rich family of CMT's "Bayou Billionaires" (along with paired program "My Big Redneck Vacation," CMT's highest-rated shows ever). The discovery of gas deposits on his property allowed patriarch Gerald Dowden to buy new trailers for relatives and new teeth for his daughter's raggedy boyfriend ("I guess I could put 'em in to wear 'em to funerals and weddings").
Some viewers may laugh when the boyfriend insists on embedding diamonds in his new front choppers. But there's plenty of dignity, too, in the way "Swamp People" depicts the Landry clan following their ancestors' ancient Cajun ways. In addition to the genre's requisite intrafamily feuds, History illuminates rarely televised traditions and culture.
"Being History, our viewers are looking for that extra insight," says Hoogstra, who notes the show's Troy Landry "was recently telling me about how tourism in Louisiana has blown up" since TV's spate of "swamp" shows. "It's been a boon to the state of Louisiana."
Besides, Hoogstra notes, for History at least, "This is all happening whether cameras are there or not. We show people a window to this world."
"This world" is definitely not the one covered on the nightly news. It tends to scoff at newfangled gadgets and sophisticated ways ("I don't need no Facebook or no Twitter-witter," drawls cowboy-hatted Ricky Smith of A&E's "Storage Wars: Texas"). It pretty much ignores the rest of the planet.
These folks devote their respect to instinct, time-tested methods, self-reliance, the family unit.
It all settles into a sort of uber-Americana that reflects how our country sometimes seems to define itself at its fiercely independent core.
Real housewives come and go. Gators, catfish and family are forever.
Down home docusoaps
DUCK DYNASTY (A&E, premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m.) -- Long-haired Louisiana clan makes/uses duck calls and decoys.
AMERICAN DIGGER (Spike, premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m.) -- Virginia salvage company of former wrestler Ric Savage seeks historic relics.
RATTLESNAKE REPUBLIC (Animal Planet, 9 p.m. Sundays) -- Texas rattler wranglers battle proliferating slitherers.
BIG RICH TEXAS (Style, 9 p.m. Sundays) -- Texas women with their pageants and country clubs.
STORAGE WARS: TEXAS (A&E, 10 p.m. Tuesdays) -- Lone Star Staters seek auction riches on unclaimed items.
SONS OF GUNS (Discovery, 9 p.m. Wednesdays) -- Louisiana gunsmiths build, sell and play with firearms.
THE AMANDAS (Style, 11 p.m. Wednesdays) -- Alabama home organizers straighten people's stuff.
SWAMP PEOPLE (History, 9 p.m. Thursdays) -- Louisiana family hunts monster gators.
MUDCATS (History, 10 p.m. Thursdays) -- Oklahomans compete to hand-catch giant catfish.
SWEET HOME ALABAMA (CMT, 9 p.m. Fridays) -- Southern girl/guy picks from competitors for their affection.
BAYOU BILLIONAIRES (CMT, 9 p.m. Saturdays) -- Plain folk spend fancy money after striking it rich.
MY BIG REDNECK VACATION (CMT, 9:30 p.m. Saturdays) -- Down-homers hit the Hamptons.
CAJUN PAWN STARS (History, marathon Saturday 8 p.m.-4 a.m.) -- Louisiana shop appraises everything from muscle cars to pirate booty.
SNAKE MAN OF APPALACHIA (Animal Planet, this Monday-Thursday 5 p.m.) -- Kentucky family handles serpents for religious services.
SOUTHERN NIGHTS (CMT, premieres April 7) -- Former "Sweet Home Alabama" cast lives together in Savannah, Ga.
TEXAS WOMEN (CMT, returns April 7) -- They're stock contractors, barrel racers and aspiring singers.
SWAMP WARS (Animal Planet, returns April 29) -- Miami-Dade Fire Rescue's venom unit fights snakes, gators, killer bees.
And keep in mind . . .
These shows have previously aired; most will be returning later this year with new episodes.
AMERICAN HOGGERS (A&E) -- Texas family hunts wild boars.
LADY HOGGERS (A&E) -- Florida females track feral hogs.
BILLY THE EXTERMINATOR (A&E) -- Louisiana pest expert vs. possums, pythons, bees
HILLBILLY HANDFISHIN' (Animal Planet) -- Oklahomans teach city slickers to "noodle" (grab) catfish.
AMERICAN STUFFERS (Animal Planet) -- Arkansas taxidermist preserves pets.
CALL OF THE WILDMAN (Animal Planet) -- Kentucky woodsman takes out skunks, spiders and turtles.
GATOR BOYS (Animal Planet) -- Florida trappers capture hard-chompin' Everglades reptiles.
MOONSHINERS (Discovery) -- Appalachians fire up backwoods stills.
SWAMP BROTHERS (Discovery) -- Florida siblings run reptile dealership/sanctuary.
RAGIN' CAJUNS (Discovery) -- Louisiana shrimpers battle for business.
BIG SHRIMPIN' (History) -- Boat crews vie for Gulf catch.