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True TV

Outdoor programming relies on an abundance of skill, flexibility, and more than a little dumb luck

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I thought I was onto something special when I stumbled across the website of a brash female guide from Washington state. She had a chip on her shoulder about the lack of respect she felt she received in the male-dominated world of salmon and steelhead guiding, and offered numerous anecdotes suggesting her equality—if not superiority—to her male peers. Numerous self-portraits on the site additionally suggested that she harbored few qualms about using her sexuality to further her business prospects. The takeaway—I’m paraphrasing here—was why hire a male guide when you can get the same or better results with me? I’m hot!

That attitude set off alarms among my female colleagues, but after lengthy consideration I made the call and scheduled a shoot with the guide—let’s call her Athena. I figured we’d get a great story if Athena turned out to be all she said she was. And if she wasn’t, we’d still have a star who would fuel nearly every male angler’s (other) wet dream: a hot chick with a fly rod.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • John Aaseng
  • Jon Aaseng filming Magnum Hunt Club member John McKnight on a British Columbia mountain goat hunt.

There are innumerable challenges to making outdoor television, but the biggest impediment is almost always the budget, or lack thereof.

Ratings for outdoor networks aren’t usually robust enough to command the attention of national advertisers, and so the ad landscape of outdoor TV is dominated by niche products: guns, ammunition, bows, rods, lures, boots, knives and the like. The companies that make and market these products tend toward the shallow end of the national advertising pool and, as a result, production budgets for outdoor shows are a fraction of those for mainstream television.

The job of nurturing a series from conception to delivery falls on the producer, who finds storylines, determines locations, arranges travel and lodging for the host and crew, and works with editors to put the show together. Since the vast majority of outdoor shows are sponsored—production companies typically purchase airtime and then solicit sponsors to offset the cost—producers have to also be adept at managing relationships with sponsoring companies that may care more about product exposure than creative content.

Due to budget constraints and the logistical need to keep crew size to a minimum, producers are often unable to accompany their crews on shoots. When the producer stays home, responsibility for field production falls on the cameramen. A standard outdoor shoot requires one or two videographers and maybe a production assistant/audio tech on location. On multiple-camera shoots, one videographer, usually the most experienced, will take the lead. On one-camera shoots—typically remote or stealth hunts—the lone videographer is a one-man band, responsible for all video, audio and field direction. The entire responsibility for content-gathering falls on a single individual; if they don’t return with enough quality footage to make a show, there will be hell to pay.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Matt Young

To get that footage, shooters coordinate and direct the on-screen talent, be it host or guest. They record all pertinent action, from travel shots and set-ups to scouting missions and distant animals, kill shots to hook-ups, interviews to transition-easing B-roll.

In addition to finely tuned creative chops and discipline, field crews are also highly advanced in terms of general badassery. They pack upwards of 50 pounds of gear over every kind of terrain on the planet. A Barrett Productions crew once spent 10 days in the high mountains of Kyrgyzstan on an ibex hunt, getting shuttled by outdated Soviet helicopters and military vehicles and humping up 13,000-foot peaks. Field crews brave conditions that would cripple normal humans: musk ox hunts at 40 below zero in the Arctic Circle; September bow hunts in temperatures approaching 100; black bear hunts in the impenetrable tangles of the Yukon; African safaris dodging blast-furnace temperatures and angry man-eaters alike.

The job isn’t without its rewards, of course—getting paid to travel to some of the most stunning landscapes on the planet is a hell of a perk—but the faint of heart, leg or eye need not apply.

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