‘I’d Rather Watch a Test Pattern’ than 24-Hour News: A Conversation with CNN’s Mike Rowe
Last year, CNN began developing a slate of nonfiction documentary shows to counteract what had become a 24/7 operation of Breaking News Updates. In a ballsy move, they scheduled these reality shows during primetime. On Wednesday, one of those shows, Somebody’s Gotta Do It, will premiere at 9 p.m. ET.
Hosted by Mike Rowe of Discovery’s Dirty Jobs, Somebody’s Gotta Do It promises to highlight not just the dirty work, but the the artsy work, the ludicrous work, even the slightly oddball work — in short, as Rowe told us, people on a “passionate mission” to do the things that make them happy.
We sat down with Rowe to talk about his adjustment to the world of cable news, what’s happened to the rest of the reality TV landscape, and why none of this matters on his new show.
I saw the first episode, and it’s very different from what we’ve seen on CNN so far. There’s a slight narrative difference between what you’re doing here and what you’ve done with Dirty Jobs, Deadliest Catch, etc. What did you find you could do at CNN that you weren’t able to do at Discovery?
What I found was that when Dirty Jobs wrapped up in 2012, we’d done 300, and we’d shot everywhere, and that was one challenge. But the bigger challenge was the landscape of nonfiction programming. It seemed to have changed. And I don’t know, maybe I missed the meeting, maybe I missed the memo, but I’m not sure what happened. But suddenly words like “nonfiction,” “unscripted” and “reality” just didn’t mean what I thought they meant anymore. The way I wound up at CNN is kind of a long story, but the short version is that fundamentally, CNN was the only network that was in “nonfiction,” and the other networks that were traditionally nonfiction now have a lot of hit shows that are produced in writer’s rooms. I dunno. Maybe it’s my accidental talking point, but it seems to me that “The Ducks Have a Dynasty,” and the “Amish Have a Mafia,” and the “Honey’s Got a Boo Boo,” and everything — look, I’m not criticizing the shows, they obviously have audiences.
But I am saying that for a nonfiction guy like me, to suddenly wake up and realize that most producers and most networks are only buying shows if they understand in advance how they’re going to end — it’s an important thing to realize. So when I finally got it through my head that that was the world I was living in, I started talking to other places, and CNN laid it out more simply and more clearly than anyone else. In fact, Jeff Zucker looked me right in the face and said, “I’ve got an hour of primetime. I’ve got all the jet fuel you need. I want you to go out and introduce my viewers to the people you believe the country should meet.”
In a recent interview, you said you wanted to tweak the reality show format and, in your first episode, you’re pretty open about how much PR involvement goes into making your show. How does that knowledge of reality show tropes help you in this new journalistic-ish format?
The idea that authority used to be the most important thing is gone. I think the most important thing now is authenticity. This is just my theory, but as a viewer, when I look at TV, I find myself attracted to people who are authentic to who they are, and they are not trying to hide anything from me. And that’s a fundamental shift from some of the things you would have seen on news networks in years past, as well as nonfiction networks. So the reason I try and tell the viewer that they’re going to see an obligatory shot of the Strip, is because you do. It’s the truth. The reason I wanted the viewer to see my challenges in dealing with the PR guy is because every single person who has ever tried to put on a TV show, has to try and navigate that stretch of water.
So rather than pretend that it’s not happening, my pitch to CNN was, “Look, let’s always have a camera rolling during the process of making the show. We’ll call it the ‘Truth Cam.’ And the moment that anything happens that to us might feel mundane, we’ll make sure it’s documented.” Because the business of making television in 2014 is really different than it was ten years ago. And again, speaking as a viewer, I think it’s an interesting part of the process, to be as transparent as you can, not in a revelatory way, not in a “Tonight, we’re going to take you behind the scenes.” It’s really ignoring the fourth wall, not breaking it, and letting the viewer be there with you as you’re trying to put the show together.
I have to say, aside from maybe Bourdain, I’ve never seen someone try and make jokes about peeing in a pool on CNN. That kind of irreverent tone — how does that help you tell these stories? I mean, now that you’re at a — actually, do you see yourself as a “real journalist”?
God, no. God, no, please. If nothing else, make that mentioned. [laughs] I’m guided basically by one thing: What would I say if I were sitting at home with my friends, watching the same show you just watched? What would I say? With respect to swimming pools, I don’t put any thought into whether or not people pee in the pool during a production of La Reve, but when a guy tells me they’ve got a million gallons of water and a special filtration system, and 150 employees who spend the better part of the day in a pool, It crosses my mind. And when I’m standing three feet away from a PR guy, who I know is actually going to pee in his pants a little bit when I ask that exact question, the eight year old in me simply makes it impossible not to ask…what the show really needs to be is a collection of honest moments. I don’t know that an exchange like that is gonna win us an Emmy, but people who watch my show, and my friends who sit and home and watch my show, will say “Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.”
One of the big reality tropes is the “network synergy” move where there is a crossover special between shows. On CNN, who would you want to do a crossover special with?
If somebody said, “Hey, do you want to go have a three day eating and drinking bacchanalia with Tony Bourdain?” I’d say “That’s a good idea! Let’s bring some cameras along.” Beyond that, I’m open to ideas. But I’ll tell you, I don’t really think — I used to hear this all the time. “When are you going to go on Mythbusters? ‘Dirty Myths!’ You and Bear Grylls ought to go for a hike up K2!” I never did that, simply because I didn’t feel like it was important to do that.
What that means here at CNN over the next couple of years? I don’t know. I like Lisa Ling. I like Morgan Spurlock. I like John Walsh. I like Anthony Bourdain. Maybe we’ll get all five of us together and do a big, I don’t know, a big piñata party or something.
Five people in a room hitting a pinata for an hour?
Your big promo for 2015: “Five nonfiction stars from CNN, blindfolded, given bats, in a small room, going after a piñata.”
Am I a bad person for wanting to watch that?
Am I a bad person for free-associating and coming up with that? We’re doing a public service, you and I.
It actually may be better than the normal cable news shoutfest. On that topic, how do you feel about now being in the world of cable news? Do you feel like you’re somewhat insulated from the “partisan echo chamber” format?
I think I’m gonna get some of that on me, and I think CNN is gonna get some of me on them, for better or for worse. Last I did the math, these guys are on the air 365 days a year, 24/7. That’s something like 8,760 hours. [Ed. note: …it’s more like 61,320 hours, which is sadder.] My question to reporters is: How many of those hours are you okay with exploring some other element of nonfiction? 10? 20? 30? It’s a toe in the water. But if we’re right — if news is, in fact, an offshoot of nonfiction, and if CNN is, in fact, a nonfiction network — then the door is open to do all sorts of different things. I love being informed, I love current events, but the 24-hour news cycle is something that’s a bit beyond my pay grade. But I do know that if you watch any cable news channel for five, six, seven hours in a row —
That’s our job at Mediaite, basically.
Oh, my God. How do you do it? I’d rather watch a test pattern than a news channel for six hours in a row. Some of them make me sleepy, some of them me stupid, and some of them make me anxious. I can’t watch news six hours a day. I just can’t.
You could say our job is being the royal taste tester of media. We basically do it so that the majority of people don’t have to.
[laughs] That’s great. Again, you’re providing a public service.
If there was one episode coming up that encapsulates that ethos of hard work and you’d say, “Please cancel your plans for that Wednesday evening and watch this, because I’m very proud of it,” which episode would it be?
Regarding passion, let me give you two quick examples. They’re totally different. They’re two different episodes, but they’re both great
Down in Laguna Beach, there’s a thing called “Pageant of the Masters.” It is a spectacle put on every year and the goal is to make art more accessible for people. The way it works is, there’s a full orchestra playing on an amphitheater outside. On stage, real works of art are brought to life by real human beings who pose in full makeup and they’re called “tableaux vivants” — living pictures. All summer in Laguna Beach, 500 volunteers come together to make art interesting by recreating, on stage, in exact detail, Da Vinci’s Last Supper, or Monet, or Manet, down the list. It’s one of the most interesting things you’ll ever see. The people are on a passionate mission. It’s great TV. It’s weird and funny, and sweet. That’s an example of what this show is, and it does everything it;s supposed to do.
Another example that’s completely different — and I haven’t even cut the footage together yet — but I just spent the day with a guy named Hank Shaw, who is a freelance media writer. What makes Hank interesting is that he hasn’t been in a supermarket or a restaurant in six years. He hasn’t purchased food in six years. What he does every day, is that he goes down to the beach, and up this mountain, up in Northern California, and he forages. He fishes, he hunts, and his pantry is filled with delicious fodder. He’s perfectly sane. He’s deeply passionate about what he does —
You said he was a sane media writer?
He’s a sane media writer! I know! It’s crazy. Honestly, part of what I think keeps him sane is that he’s committed this chunk of his life to doing this thing that very few people do. And in doing that, he’s found a weird measure of balance and happiness.
That’s pretty cool.
Yeah! I love it! That’s why I’m doing the show. Remember, Somebody’s Gotta Do It is not “produced.” It’s not in the classic sense, by the way. I get all the ideas off Facebook.
Is that how you found the random media writer with an intense passion for foraging? Foraging is not easy work.
I know. I went on my Facebook page and made sure people knew I was working on this show. I said, “Look, I do not want to rely on a network or a production company to cobble together another reality show. I want to start with the people who watch it. So if you know somebody, or if you’re somebody who fits the bill, if you’re an entrepreneur or a philanthropist or a bloddy do-gooder or an inventor, or just some obsessive collector, tell me your story. And if I can swing it, I’ll come by with a crew.” Somebody sent me a link to this website for Hank Shaw and said, “He doesn’t buy food anymore!” So I read stuff he wrote and I thought, “He sounds sane. Let’s go meet him.” And now we have a show.
That’s how the show works. To me, nobody in television is producing a show like that today, and no other network would have given me permission to try.
[This interview has been edited for length.]
[Image via CNN]
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