The value of work: On the success and appeal of labor-centric reality programs

Over the holidays, I spent a substantial amount of time watching television with my parents (as you do). My parents don’t have the most refined television tastes (and they’ll be the first to admit it), but I was surprised to see that some of the obnoxious reruns of CSI: Miami they used to watch all the time had been replaced by the likes of Pawn Stars, Storage Wars and American Pickers. I never thought they’d get away from David Caruso’s melting face, and I certainly didn’t expect them to shack up with basic cable quasi-documentary reality programming in the great Caruso’s absence.

But as I watched my parents watch these kinds of programs, I began to realize that they saw something in the likes of Storage Wars and American Pickers that I had sort of thought about before, but not really considered in a larger context: These are series that celebrate “normal” people working. Sure, the portrayal of labor in Pawn Stars or Storage Wars isn’t holistically realistic; it’s obviously edited, manipulated and crafted to fit within the constraints of a typical 22-minute block of programming. Nevertheless, for a great deal of television viewers in this country, those people like my parents who might be a little older and who don’t know what The A.V. Club is or who the hell Alan Sepinwall is, these series and so many more like them represent the power of individual labor and the success that comes from it. This interests me a great deal.

Of course, my parents are not alone in their love for these series. Last week, Pawn Stars (2, 3), American Pickers (7), Storage Wars (8, 11) and Gold Rush (10) all were among the top 12 most-watched series on basic cable. Half of the top 10 series last week were what I call “labor reality programs.”

And even though they might not have been in the top 25 most-watched series on basic cable, there are a boatload of other labor reality programs that keep networks afloat. Here are the ones I could come up with just through cursory research: American Restoration, Hardcore Pawn, Auction Kings, Storage Hunters, Auction Hunters, Oddities, Mounted in Alaska, Ice Pilots, Ax Men, Big Shrimpin’, Ice Road Truckers, IRT: Deadliest Roads, American Loggers, Saw Dogs, Deadliest Catch, Dirty Jobs, Storm Chasers, Swamp Loggers, Sons of Guns, Treasure Quest, Verminators, South Beach Tow, Operation Repo, Black Gold, Bear Swamp Recovery, Lizard Lick Towing, Shipping Wars, Manhunters: Fugitive Task Force, Dog The Bounty Hunter.

There are probably literally hundreds of other series I’m not thinking of and that doesn’t even include things like Cake Boss, NY Ink or any other barely-real program on TLC and similar cable networks. The point I’m trying to make that I think you obviously see is that this labor-centric format has been especially lucrative for television networks. Some of these series are more “real” than others (many, like Hardcore Pawn, are quite ridiculous) and the barometer for success is very small on basic cable, but the fact that all the series I listed are still airing or are scheduled to air new episodes tells us that viewers care about labor reality programs.

As a culture, I think we’ve always been interested in sneaking a peak at worlds we would never experience in our own lives. That leads us to space, alternate realities and all sorts of places that perhaps only the imagination can concoct. That sort of escapism cannot be underestimated and it is often celebrated by the media. At the same time though, we are similarly excited to celebrate the everyday and the typical and I would argue, we are especially excited to celebrate the “normal” people who make this world tick (and who we still might not ever be able to meet, for dozens of reasons).

In a lot of ways, I think this is why so many of our television series are built around normal jobs – police, lawyers, doctors, office workers, etc. The labor-centric narrative provides a solid, stable framework to create each episode and the first three allow writers to PUT LIVES IN JEOPARDY, but there’s also something to be said for our desire to latch on to people doing a job. Fictional cops and doctors aren’t often that relatable to our local beat cop or family physician, but the codes are there, the familiarity is there.

Reality television producers figured out that they could offer audiences something even better: “Real” people doing even more “real” jobs. Some of the jobs might be especially dangerous (Deadliest Catch comes to mind here) and therefore not anymore relatable than Doctor House or Horatio Cane.* And some of the labor reality programs might be so heavily edited and stuffed full of shockingly unreal footage that it’s hard to say the individuals starring in them are still laborers (in the traditional sense) and not simply performers.  But still, the allure of seeing “real” people doing “real” jobs, presumably because they literally need to – as in, it is how they make a living – is quite strong in our culture.

*I guess one could certainly argue that the difficulty of the job has less impact on the “relatability” of the people doing said job. When people from The Deadliest Catch have died, the outpour of support and emotion has been substantial, suggesting that people really care and relate to those guys just as much, if not more, as they would anyone else.

What’s interesting to me about this boom in labor reality programs is, well, the timing. Some of the series I listed have been around for a while and going back even further, we can come up with examples like Cops that highlight our desire to watch “real” people make a difference in the world through their profession. Yet, most of the labor reality programs I did provide came on the air within the last few years and generally speaking, there’s been an increase in the amount of programs coming to airwaves that follow the labor reality program format. In short, there’s a trend here.

We could definitely identify a few basic industrial factors for this boom. Basic cable networks are a part of a highly competitive market and one that’s predicated on copying the success of your competitors. Plus, making a labor reality program cannot be too expensive. “Inexpensive” plus “solid chance to succeed” are two phrases all networks all looking for in 2012. And I am sure these are absolutely true for the folks running A&E, History, Discovery and all those networks bunched right together on everyone’s cable packages.

However, the current cultural and socioeconomic circumstances make the success of these series especially interesting. If we have always enjoyed taking a peak into the lives of normal citizens doing their part to keep our nation running, our recent obsession with labor reality programs takes our interest a few steps further. I would argue that our desire to see more labor-based reality programming is directly tied to our fears about the state of the economy, our jobs and the future. More than ever, the “real” people doing “real” things are worth celebrating. Not only are they doing interesting things to keep the world a-spinnin’, but they literally still have a job.

In 2012, there’s no guarantee that anyone can get a job. President Obama just gave his State of the Union address and talked about job creation and that’s all wonderful in theory, but I and millions of other people in this country are terrified that there aren’t actually jobs out there. We want to be laborers, but cannot. But then, television is full of laborers and not just fictional ones who work in ridiculously heightened environments. In that sense, watching television programs about people doing labor reminds us that our country still even has labor and people still have the capability to work.

We like to think about television and all media as an escape, a way to get away from our problems. There’s certainly lots of truth to that, so when people write stories about 3D Blockbusters saving us from the dregs of our broken political system and fractured economy, it makes sense. However, in this instance, I think television viewership is telling us something else entirely. We might be “escaping” into jobs that we could never personally have, but we’re still latching on to people and ideals that we believe are supposed to power our society. Watching something like Deadliest Catch reinforces our cultural beliefs about labor, about masculinity and even about America as a whole. It tells us that despite the current slump, there are remnants of the kind of society and kind of people we once had and will likely need again. Real people, doing real jobs.*

*There’s definitely something to be said for the demographics of what’s popular on basic cable. Youths are latching on to Jersey Shore and the generally older audiences are powering the success of Pawn Stars and American Pickers. You could probably say that they’re holding on to the greatness of a country that we will never be again, but I think A.) We should always strive to be the best, whatever that means and B.) The series are smart to evoke ideals like history and masculinity; they play well with the target audience. 

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One Response to “The value of work: On the success and appeal of labor-centric reality programs”
  1. amy says:

    This is an interesting idea. My parents watch many of these same shows and are especially fans of American Pickers and Pawn Stars. I think though that these shows are just “sexier” versions of Antiques Roadshow which has been on longer than the economic crisis. It seems these two shows in particular play well with older people because in most cases they are reviewing items from their childhood. It’s like a Cracker Barrel threw up on their TV. (Of course there are also those who say these shows, and Pickers especially, prey on and rip off older people). Maybe all of the labor-centric shows are popular because they invoke a sense of nostalgia but it seems more true where they see actual representations of those “simpler” times.

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