How Thom Beers Built a Reality-TV Empire

December 17th, 2012

Peter Bohler for The New York Times

Three crabbing boats on the Bering Sea for the filming for an episode of “Deadliest Catch.”

A lesser-known consequence of the collapse of the real estate market in 2007 was the sudden unemployment of a 40-year-old carpenter from Kalamazoo, Mich., named Scott Meisterheim. Meisterheim first went to Las Vegas, then north to an oil-drilling camp in the Alaskan Arctic, and, one divorce later, to Nome, Alaska, a town of about 3,500 people huddled on the coast of the Bering Sea, in search of that last hope among last hopes: gold.

Peter Bohler for The New York Times

Thom Beers on location in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

People like Scott Meisterheim have been coming to Nome since 1898, when three Scandinavian-American prospectors stumbled upon gold deposits of almost-unthinkable richness in the Anvil Creek watershed outside town. (The largest nugget found there weighed a dozen pounds.) Modern Nome may be a century removed from its glory days, but you can still catch their echo in the town’s small harbor, where the docks are lined with gold dredges: rickety pontoon boats that ply the Bering coast, sucking up from the sea floor what’s left of Nome’s mineral inheritance.

There are easier ways to make a living. Divers in heated wetsuits must descend into the frigid water for hours at a time, directing vacuum hoses connected to a sorting apparatus aboard the dredge. If you’re lucky, you can make thousands of dollars in a week. Meisterheim was not lucky. His first season in Nome was plagued by technical mishaps and shouting matches with his dredging crew. He returned to Michigan well short of the child-support payments he owed, and he spent four nights in jail.

Several months later, in a moodily lighted historic tavern outside Santa Barbara, Calif., Meisterheim was reflecting on the experience in front of a film crew. Seated across the table from him was Vern Adkison, a mountainous Alabama native who owned the dredge that Meisterheim captained. Adkison was convinced that Meisterheim had found more gold than he had let on. “He lied, he cheated, he maliciously damaged my equipment,” Adkison growled.

“You wanna go, Vern?” Meisterheim shouted.

“You’re damn right I do!” Adkison shot back.

Both men jumped up from the table and headed for each other. Meisterheim lunged at Adkison with a pint glass, then began pummeling him with his fist.

“Whoa, dudes!” Thom Beers, the man sitting between them, shouted as he leapt to his feet. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Beers, who is 61, was shorter than both Meisterheim and Adkison, and — with his graying goatee, square-rimmed glasses and beach-bum demeanor — a bit softer-looking too. Beers is the executive producer of “Bering Sea Gold,” a reality show on the Discovery Channel that follows half a dozen Nome dredging crews, including the one led by Meisterheim. The meeting in the tavern was being filmed for the reunion episode capping the show’s first season.

Beers tried to get a hold on Adkison as he and Meisterheim caromed off an antique cash register. Finally, Meisterheim stormed out, and Adkison collapsed into his seat, wheezing heavily. Beers turned to one of the video cameras, his stern expression compromised by the hint of a smile. “We’ll be right back,” he said.

When “Bering Sea Gold” made its debut last January, it had the highest ratings of any series premiere in Discovery’s history, and a spinoff mini-series, “Bering Sea Gold: Under the Ice,” was broadcast this summer. The Meisterheim fight made the gossip site TMZ. Beers brought it up almost immediately when I met him six months later, pointing out with some satisfaction a detail that was easy to miss on TV. “I’m thinking, I should man up and do something,” he recalled. “So I step in to break up the fight, and I catch one, boom, right on the jaw. And I’m like, All right, this is television!”

If you have spent any time in the past decade clicking through certain neighborhoods of cable TV — former educational channels like Discovery and History, caterers to prolonged male adolescence like Spike and truTV — you have seen Thom Beers’s work. It’s the reason that viewers who have never worked a day away from an Aeron chair may know the dimensions and weight of a crab pot or the freezing point of synthetic transmission fluid. It’s the reason that on any given night you might turn on the television to find a fisherman or bush pilot detailing the hazards of his job to Jay Leno. Beers, who currently has 13 shows on 8 networks, is one of the few producers in reality television who is synonymous with an entire subgenre. What Andy Cohen is to over-the-top socialites and Mark Burnett is to game shows on South Pacific islands, Beers is to blue-collar TV.

Charles Homans is the executive editor at The Atavist, a tablet-based publisher of nonfiction. 

Editor: Jon Kelly

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