If you happen to know of a little person with psychic powers, Thom Beers would like to hear from you, please. For four years, the king of unscripted reality television has been searching for such a person, for an as-yet-unmade show. The dream started with a title, which he has now trademarked and of which he is very proud: Small Medium at Large.
"It'll be a little person psychic that travels around helping people with their problems," Beers said during an interview at the recent Banff World Media Festival. "But I just can't find the talent. It's very hard to find a little person with psychic abilities. And you can't fake it."
If it sounds like an unlikely premise for a TV series, consider the other reality hits Beers has scored: shows about crab fishing ( Deadliest Catch), repossessed storage lockers ( Storage Wars), ice truckers in the Canadian north ( Ice Road Truckers). And then there's his latest creation, set to launch on IFC in the United States this summer, Whisker Wars.
"It's about competitive beard growers," says Beers, who got the idea after reading a story in the Los Angeles Times about a guy named Jack Passion.
"He's got this massive red beard," Beers says. "And he's a professional beardsman. He's actually making a career growing a beard: He's written a book, he's got a bunch of hair-care products, he's a spokesman for a beef company. Seriously."
Still not sold on the concept? You won't be able to resist the tension, Beers says, between this bearded Californian and the Austin Facial Hair Club out of Texas.
"You've got this massive rivalry where these guys are going to kill each other to claw their way to the top of the beard world." Seriously.
Beers's foray into this kind of television - a genre that he helped create and now dominates - began with a show he was hired to do by Discovery Channel in the United States, called Extreme Alaska. In his research package, there was an article about the "deadliest job in the world" - crab fishing. Beers talked his way onto a boat, along with a camera and sound operator, and set off to shoot footage for a 12-minute segment.
"Little do I know at the time, we're about to roll into the worst storm in 30 years, that within 48 hours we're 200 miles at sea, the wind's blowing 70 knots, waves are cresting 40 feet," he says. "Two boats sunk, seven guys drowned around us - they never found the bodies. … It was chaos. I'd never seen anything like it and all I could do was keep rolling. I was too scared to be sick; I thought for sure I was dead. But I kept rolling."
Beers had enough material for a one-hour special, The Deadliest Job in the World, which led to a three-part series that turned into Deadliest Catch - Discovery's No. 1 show.
There have been many other successes for the prolific producer: Monster Garage with Jesse James (Sandra Bullock's ex), 1000 Ways to Die (which is being made into a graphic novel), Ax Men and Monster House.
"The ideas bounce around in my little brain," Beers says. "I'm a voracious reader and I'm curious about a lot of different things."
Just about everything he's done has been his own concept, with a notable exception: the born-in-Canada series Ice Road Truckers. When the idea was pitched to him by the History Channel - which had had success with a one-hour special on ice truckers years earlier - he initially balked.
"Now, I love a challenge, but I've got to be honest. When I looked at that show I thought I've got to be out of my frickin' mind," Beers says. "If you think about it, it's five guys, sitting in a truck by themselves, driving in a straight line at 15 miles an hour. … I'm thinking: Oh my God this is the death of me."
But when he got to Yellowknife and met the drivers, he knew he had a potential hit on his hands. "I find these great characters; I mean they're bigger than life. And all of a sudden, it's like, okay, I can do this."
After the first season, the show moved to Nunavut and then to Alaska, but they're now back in Canada. Season 5, which has just started airing, was shot on the ice roads of Manitoba. And the drivers are shooting a spinoff series in Bolivia: Ice Road Truckers Deadliest Roads.
"As a Canadian, you've got to be proud," Beers tells The Globe and Mail. "These guys are the greatest characters in the world."
Character and story are the keys to creating compelling television, Beers says, along with real stakes - like life and death. He acknowledges his shows have more appeal to male viewers. "Testostereality," he says with a laugh.
Even when he was asked to create a female-friendly series for the Women's Entertainment Network - and came up with Twister Sisters (about two women who take tourists through tornado alley), he learned the first episode attracted more 18- to 49-year-old men than any other show in the history of the network.
"I was even trying to make a women's show and I couldn't do it," he says. "Believe me, you don't think I hear it from my wife? She's in my ear all the time. When are you going to make shows for women? Why are you such a male pig?"
The show he's currently developing will likely be no exception: He's turning to truckers again, this time to the places where they stop, eat and shower. "I'm fascinated by truck stops," says Beers, who has two crews driving around the U.S. Midwest, hanging out in truck stops, looking for his next big reality-TV stars.
"What you're trying to do is find icons," he says. "Iconic figures that everybody can relate to."
Whisker Wars premieres on IFC in the United States on Aug. 5.