What Alaskan Reality TV Teaches Us About Market Research

By the Editors

We’ve been talking a lot about TV this week. With the launch of a new season of entertainment, it’s an obvious choice! As part of this, we’ve been thinking about the onslaught of Alaskan reality shows and what that demonstrates about how adept the Discovery Channel is at knowing their audience.If you’ve turned on Discovery lately, you’ve noticed the proliferation of Alaskan reality shows. Yukon Men follows hunter/trappers in the village of Tanana as they eke out a life in the middle of the forest. Alaska: Surviving The Last Frontier follows the adventures of a homesteading family (actually, singer Jewel’s father and kin) as they live a fully sustainable lifestyle on the Kenai peninsula. Reruns of Flying Wild Alaska show the lives of bush pilots in remote Western Alaska. Other shows follow gold miners (Gold Rush), Alaska’s state troopers and coast guard, and various types of fisherman. There’s even a show about taxidermy, called Mounted in Alaska.

If you’re not a fan of this kind of rougher reality TV, you’re probably scratching your head wondering how a network can feature a dozen Alaskan reality shows without their audience getting bored. You might also be wondering how they are finding all these Alaskans to star in the shows in this sparsely populated state. Both are valid questions.

Supply meets demand, and Discovery understands the desires of its audience very well.  The current Alaskan reality crush speaks to the needs of the same audience that loves shows like Dirty Jobs, MythBusters, and Shark Week. This is a different crowd that the ones Keeping Up with the Kardashians, or lusting after The Bachelor. The same old reality show approaches don’t apply.

Discovery has accumulated vast amounts of viewer data; they know a lot about their typical viewer: blue collar or middle class, male, and into things like hunting, fishing, sports, and cars. These may not even be hobbies they actively pursue but they’re aspirational. Getting off the couch to go fishing or hunting may be too hard, but watching men who have spent a lifetime expertly fishing and trapping is the perfect escape. Or they may not actually want to dive into the waters of the Bering Sea for gold, but they imagine leaving the 9 – 5 for an adventure and love living vicariously through the show’s protagonists.

Yet anyone who just looked at the demographics might miss some of the subtleties that allow Discovery to successfully serve up such a niche product over and over again. These viewers are cramped in urban or suburban lives; they’re hungry for open space. Escaping their work and family routine with adventure, nature, and manly activities as opposed to sports or the explicit shows on other networks fulfills a particular need. Most of all, in a TV landscape populated by GQ models and unattainably beautiful women, the viewer can find an “everyman” like himself that inspires more empathy and a deeper engagement.

So what does all this mean for the market researcher that’s trying to develop a profound understanding of his customer? It’s not just about understanding demographics, budgets, price points, and feature lists. Your market research efforts need to take you beyond the surface, deep down into the why people consume the products they do.  If you understand these fundamental human drives, you’ll be able to move your customers to do anything – including spend hours each week living virtually in Alaska.