Tired of Skip, Stephen and the other talking heads? So are we! So Sports on Earth is sending Mike Tanier to the fringes of the sports tier in search of something better, more compelling, or just weirder to watch. In our first installment of The Television Alternative, Tanier journeys to The Outdoor Channel to check out "King of the Spring," TV's premier (read: only) turkey hunting reality show.
Mark Drury has a problem. He needs to kill a turkey by 1 PM to win the first round of a reality television competition he co-produces with his brother and nephew. The first day of the two-day contest, which was also Opening Day for turkey hunting in Missouri, was ruined by high winds, but the second day weather looks promising. Unfortunately, Drury locked his keys inside his pickup truck. Not only must he double back to headquarters to call a locksmith, but he and partner Steve "Coon Dog" Coon must film the whole procedure.
Matt Drury has a bigger problem. Mark's nephew, the son of hunting-show legend and co-star Terry Drury, and the man behind the scenes for "King of the Spring," Matt had to produce 13 episodes of a turkey hunting reality show during the three-week Missouri hunting season. It's was grueling, ambitious schedule, but the first day of the season and the filming was so windy and wet that hunters did not hear a single gobble. The Drury brothers, Coon Dog, co-star Chris Comstock, plus celebrity guests Kyle McClellen (Cardinals pitcher) and Tom Hornish (president of The Outdoor Channel), spent the day walking and driving around in the rain, which does not make for entertaining television. "You script it to the best of your ability in pre-production, but you cannot control Mother Nature," Matt said. "And it's not like these turkeys are tied to a tree."
With Mark's keys locked in the truck on the second day, "King of the Spring's" debut episode threatened to be a turkey hunting show without turkeys. Matt improvised with footage of the stars snacking at turkey camp, playing rock-paper-scissors to divvy up teams, bantering over who would harvest the biggest bird, and finally of his uncle calling a locksmith and watching as the truck window got the coat hanger treatment.
Finally, the Drury fortunes turned. As Mark and Coon Dog focused on one longbeard, a whole rafter of them strutted straight into camera range through a field of dry grass. One shot by Coon Dog, a jolt and flash of feathers, and "King of the Spring" delivered on its promise, albeit with more suspense than the producers would have liked.
"Some of the encounters are what people latch onto, even more than the kills," Matt said of "King of the Spring." Later episodes featured more actual hunting than the weather-hampered debut, but "King of the Spring" is more about near-misses and misadventures than kills. It's a strange-but-amusing marriage of the most tired cliché on television -- the contrived reality competition -- to one of the least popular outdoor sports in America.
Cool Turkey. Drury Outdoors has been producing hunting shows for over 20 years. They produce four other programs for the Outdoor Channel, but the others focus on deer and elk hunting, which were the most popular selling video topics during the Drury family's VHS early days. There are 12 million deer hunters but just two million turkey hunters in America. The Outdoor Channel tasked Drury Outdoors to serve an underserved niche with a high-quality show while creating a hunting show with a broader appeal. "We want to make turkey hunting cool," Matt Drury said.
"Word on the street was that you cannot make a turkey show interesting," he added. Turkeys are just not as visually arresting as deer or other big game. Even in high-definition and at close range, they all look alike, and when they are not displaying their tail feathers, they look like little black blobs.
So Drury Outdoors came up with a competition angle: Terry and Comstock versus Mark and Coon, plus some celebrity guests, settling a sibling rivalry during a three-week turkey camp. They added target shooting competitions, scripted challenges, and trappings like reality-show cutaways to the stars cracking one-liners. They also upped their production values, with helicopter footage and lots of quick cuts, and they commissioned a catchy country-rock theme song. "We went in trying to blow the doors off it," Matt said.
A 24-minute episode of "King of the Spring" is edited from 285 hours of footage shot by as many as ten cameras (some operated by the on-air personalities) over a three-day period. The tightly-compressed shooting and editing schedule forces some compromises, like a debut episode in which no turkey is threatened until the final minutes.
"King of the Spring" looks more like "American Pickers" or some other "Midwestern Guys do Midwestern Things" History Channel-style on-the-job program than most other sportsman programs. Whether you find it entertaining depends on whether you find the tropes of those shows entertaining: manufactured situations and drama, stars telling you what they are about to do before doing it and telling you what they did, and so on. Such shows typically rely on the charisma of their stars, and the Drury Brothers, like Frank and Mike from "American Pickers," come across as affable and enthusiastic, eager to do a little "runnin' and gunnin'" or spend the morning chasing a longbeard that is teasing them by acting like a "Walkaway Joe." That enthusiasm goes a long way to separate "King of the Spring"from the somewhat grim business of trudging through the woods that comprises the bulk of most hunting shows.
Plus, a huge segment of the viewing public doesn't want to see a majestic deer buy it, though that is not as big a deal on the sportsman-serving Outdoor Channel. A little black glob whose distant cousin appeared beneath tomatoes in a recent sandwich? Harvest him, Coon Dog.
"WTF" Stands for Wild Turkey Federation. Few turkeys are harmed in the making of this turkey hunting program. Even after the weather settled down and the hunters found their stride, a typical "King of the Spring" features only one or two kills, with more emphasis on the shooting challenges, hunting procedurals, and storytelling (stock footage of kills from other episodes spikes up the action during montages). The kills themselves are not gruesome, and the show goes to lengths to show and explain hunting protocols.
One midseason episode started with a clay target contest. Neither Drury could hit a moving target to save his life, and their teammates were not much better. Mark admitted to the camera that he only likes to shoot targets "standing right in front" of him. Watching the Peyton and Eli Manning of hunting videos get the golden sombrero from clay pigeons is like watching Martha Stewart burn scrambled eggs, but one of the show's judges (recruited for the episode as a special guest; the guests not only provide new faces but new hunting licenses as the Drury's and their co-stars reach their season limits) rescues the segment with some steady aim.
Then, the stars paired off in search of turkeys, outlining a variety of strategies, using all manner of calls and decoys, and trudging through hollows. One of Terry's decoys attracts all the wrong attention: first a coyote, then a curious fawn, who walks right up and sniffs it. Meanwhile, Mark's team waits inside an old structure for a bird roosted in a nearby true. Just as in the debut episode, a more appealing target approaches out of nowhere, and the guest hunter makes the kill.
Finally, it's back to a weigh-in on Terry's farm. Turkeys are judged according to NWTF -- yes, WTF, the National Wild Turkey Federation -- standards: beard length times two, plus spur length times ten, plus weight in pounds. Think of the judging as ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating, only it is for turkeys, and it makes sense. It's hunting with a side of sabermetrics, and Mark's team takes the lead in the competition. A little banter, and it's time for the theme song again.
That's a typical episode: banter and story-setting, some target missing, hunting, turkey-go-boom, turkey algebra, banter, theme song. The woods are pretty, the hosts are engaging, and the pace is brisk. (The season finale aired March 26; reruns will air all through the summer.)
Does "King of the Spring" make turkey hunting cool? It certainly introduces viewers to a sport even other sportsman know little about, and it does so without burying viewers in equipment minutiae, long periods of inactivity, or bloody giblets. Like "American Pickers," "Swamp Loggers," "Ice Road Truckers" and dozens of other shows of its general genre, the show is as much about ordinary people pursuing an unusual career/pastime as it is about logging or driving in Alaska. Thirty minutes with the Drury Brothers passes much faster than 30 minutes with Skip and Stephen.
"King of the Spring" has not yet been renewed for a second season. It all comes down to numbers, and Matt Drury knows that everything depends on how well the show attracted viewers who do not share his family's passion for turkey hunting. "When they start gobbling, it feels like the earth moving," Matt said of the show's reluctant stars, but when a turkey gobbles at the far end of the sports tier, does it really make a sound?