Dave Turin on the Discovery Channel series "Gold Rush." (Edward Gorsuch / Discovery…)
There's gold in them thar hills! Or is there?
Three seasons into Discovery Channel's "Gold Rush," the hardscrabble crew at the center of the gritty reality show is again mining for millions in Alaska and the Klondike. The displaced blue-collar workers, friends and family members on a desperate make-or-break treasure hunt have yet to hit the mother lode.
The cable channel, on the other hand, has already struck it rich with a series that regularly draws more male viewers on Friday nights than anything else on television, broadcast networks included. In addition, "Gold Rush's" exotic new spinoff, "Jungle Gold," has quickly captured an audience, as has the expanded behind-the-scenes series, "Gold Rush: The Dirt."
And the gold fever doesn't stop there, pointing to a booming interest among viewers and TV programmers in gold mining and the bootstrap folks who do it. Outdoor Channel airs the scenic "Alaskan: A Modern Day Gold Rush" and the long-running "Gold Fever," while National Geographic Channel, after producing the multi-generational "Goldfathers," is considering other gold-hunting series and specials.
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Next month Discovery's hit, "Bering Sea Gold," returns for a second season of following divers who dredge the bottom of the frigid Alaskan ocean for gold. Its spinoff, "Bering Sea Gold: Under the Ice," recently showed some of the same daredevils diving in winter, tunneling through 5 feet of ice to do so.
"There's a Wild West feel to these shows," said Nancy Daniels, Discovery Channel's executive vice president of production and development. "It's such rugged and difficult work, ripe for drama. And it hearkens back to that American dream of using your grit and changing your life."
Discovery now airs three hours of gold-centric programming on Friday nights, drawing in more men in key demographic categories than any other channel. A recent block of "The Dirt," "Gold Rush" and "Jungle Gold" bested networks such as ESPN, ABC, TNT and Fox in men 18-49 years old.
There are likely a number of reasons this reality subgenre has caught on with viewers, and the first may be the skyrocketing price of gold, which currently sells for more than $1,700 an ounce.
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The leap in price spawned a cottage industry of cash-for-gold businesses that advertise on TV, radio and billboards, seemingly nonstop, offering big money for castoff jewelry. There was even a well-watched Super Bowl commercial from Cash4Gold.com with MC Hammer and Ed McMahon. Former "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" host Robin Leach now stars in an ad campaign for gold buyer GoldMax.
As the economy continues to struggle, with unemployment figures still high, viewers can relate to down-on-their-luck men using their brawn to try to provide for their families, Daniels said.
The current crop of shows also taps into the testosterone-charged dangerous jobs and heavy machinery trend in reality TV, pioneered by hits like "Deadliest Catch" and "Ice Road Truckers." They have treasure hunting, get-rich-quick elements, too, that run through popular series such as "American Pickers" and "Storage Wars."
Discovery Channel vice president-executive producer Christo Doyle said he was hooked from the moment he saw footage of the Hoffman crew, led by patriarch Jack Hoffman and his son, Todd, trying to eke out a living by mining for gold in Alaska and Canada's Yukon territory. The teaser video, which turned into "Gold Rush," came from British production company Raw TV.
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"It was a true adventure in an awesome, dynamic environment with great characters and great stories," said Doyle, executive producer of "Gold Rush" and "Jungle Gold," and host of "The Dirt." "And the gold made it sexier."
The "Gold Rush" stars, most from the Oregon area, turned to mining after they found themselves in the same boat as many other Americans: laid off, broke and floundering. Jack Hoffman had tried and failed at gold mining years ago and saw this as his second chance to make a mark. Everyone involved needed the work. Those elements made the crew relatable to the average TV viewer and especially to Discovery's target male audience, Doyle said.
Even though the crew didn't hit a gold vein in the first two seasons — and instead sunk into a financial hole — viewers continued to watch, making "Gold Rush" one of the channel's highest-rated series. It pulled in 4.5 million viewers for its recent Season 3 launch, with producers promising there will be more gold in the future than fans have seen so far. The crews already have surpassed their previous haul on the way to a goal of 1,000 ounces in the brief 150-day mining season.
Their determination pays off — as does spreading out the work among four mines in three locations — though Doyle wouldn't share any spoilers about the ultimate windfall.