Jay Russell, left, lays down the law on Southern Fried Stings. (Jeremy Freeman / truTV )
In the brand-conscious world of networks, there's one cable outlet that needs a therapist — and maybe a referee, a lawyer and an urgent-care doctor.
You don't need to consult the DSM-IV to learn that truTV exhibits a split personality. The more conventional side, the one that comes out during daylight hours, tends to be fairly straightforward and focuses mainly on live coverage of criminal and civil trials.
But by late afternoon and into the dark hours of the night, the cable network notably transforms. Gone are the law-and-order three-piece suits and decorum of the court. In its place emerges a reality-show cavalcade packed with noisy, tattoo-heavy, in-your-grill attitude from a host of tow-truck drivers, pawnbrokers and conspiracy theorists.
On a given night, you might find former Minnesota governor and ex-pro wrestler Jesse Ventura leading an investigation into the "Montauk Monster," supposedly a beast borne from dangerous bio-warfare experiments at the Plum Island Animal Research Center off the coast of Long Island, N.Y. Or on "Hardcore Pawn," you could see the show's streetwise proprietor butt heads with his clientele and even an octogenarian who removes her dentures to make a sale on gold teeth.
And then there's the freelance investigative unit behind "Southern Fried Stings," which has chased down a preacher claiming to heal the sick. "Justice will be served, with a side of biscuits," proclaims the unit's leader, Jay Russell.
The strategy behind the bifurcated brand, owned by Turner Broadcasting and launched in 2008, has proved successful. Available in 93 million homes, the network is gaining ground in the ratings and recently moved into the top 10 among basic-cable stations.
TruTV's prime-time menu has picked up surprising fans, including TNT basketball analyst Charles Barkley. The famously outspoken former NBA star talked to a San Francisco radio station recently about one of his favorite shows, "Lizard Lick Towing."
"Dude, it's some of the craziest stuff I've ever seen in my life," said Barkley. "First of all, they seem like great guys, but they two big old country boys and they be stealing people's cars back. It is the funniest thing in the world. They have people fighting with them all of the time. You're just laughing the whole time. I'm telling you dude, it's like white Black Entertainment Television [BET]."
In fact, things get so outrageous on truTV programs that some believe it's more fiction than fact. Like most reality shows, the formats are kinetic and the action is filmed docu-style, complete with shaky camera movement and awkward angles.
The dialogue is littered with four-letter words, which are bleeped. Productions are anything but slick — in one episode of "Operation Repo," Matt Burch, one of the muscled repossessors, yells at the show's camera crew for not moving fast enough in the threat of danger: "You guys sometimes are a bunch of idiots."
And it's this kind of presentation that has brought truTV under fire from detractors who say the shows are clearly manipulated for dramatic effect.
"It's offensive to mention truTV in the same sentence as reality television." said Andy Dehnart, the creator of "reality blurred" (realityblurred.com), a website devoted to reality television. "It just feels inauthentic. Lots of viewers have turned their backs on them, saying the action is not happening organically. To me, it's a complete and offensive waste of time."
But network executives downplay the criticism, explaining that viewers know exactly what they're getting. The station's tag line is "Not Reality. Actuality" and disclaimers at the start of most series state that episodes are "based on real events."
"Notice we don't say it's reality," said Steve Koonin, Turner's entertainment chief. "We call it actuality. This is our version of reality."
Added Marc Juris, truTV's executive vice president and general manager: "What's critical is that the people who are the main characters are real. These are real teams. This is their profession, and these are their stories."
While the slate is popular in Los Angeles and New York, the network, which attracts major national advertisers including Pizza Hut, Chrysler, Geico, AT&T and major film studios such as Universal and Warner Bros., its principal strength is in suburban counties.
The network knows its audience — men in the 18-to-34 and 18-to-49 demographics. In addition to stalwart programs such as "Hardcore Pawn," "Lizard Lick Towing" and "Bait Car," shows carry provocative titles such as "Operation Repo" and "Las Vegas Jailhouse." Coming soon is "Bear Swamp Recovery" and another built around former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, who mentors a team of little-people wrestlers.
"The appeal is grit," said Liam O'Brien, professor of communications at Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University. "It's how we see ourselves after four or five years of a bad economy."