Tuesday's fourth-season premiere of Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" opens during a raging nighttime storm in the Bering Sea. Mammoth waves smash an Alaskan crab fishing boat called the Wizard, sending large swells crashing over its deck. Inside, alarmed crew members discover that their stateroom is flooding with incoming seawater.
The sequence suggests that the fishermen are in danger of sinking as a violent tempest tosses huge waves against the boat.
But here's the not-so-deadliest catch:
The boat flooded in September.
The huge storm waves were from October.
And a producer may have filmed extra footage to help stitch the two events together.
Pages from a production outline obtained by The Hollywood Reporter suggest that producers of the cable network's top-rated series may have strayed from reality while editing the harrowing sequence from the show's record-setting premiere.
The document directs producers of the Emmy-nominated program to patch together a scene of life-and-death peril from different days of filming.
Early draftDiscovery executives described the outline as an early draft that was dismissed by the show's production company. The sequence, however, does match what appeared in Tuesday's episode. The network strongly denies that re-enactment footage is ever used by "Catch," but it acknowledged that material from separate days of filming were combined to produce the scene in question.
From the outline:
"WIZARD ROGUE WAVE: Combine Wizard leak story on 9/26 with the Wizard being hit by a big wave on 10/1 and 10/2. The fiction we are constructing is that the big wave hit the Wizard on their steam up to Dutch — caused a leak in Lenny's stateroom. In reality these were two separate events. In addition to the original source material, (a producer's name redacted by THR) shot re-enactment footage."
Such editing and staging tactics are common on reality shows, but Discovery considers "Catch" a documentary and holds the series to the highest standard.
Discovery president and general manager John Ford said the outline was an early draft that did not rise to the level of network inspection. "It's a rough draft that was rejected," Ford said after speaking to producer Original Prods.
That said, the scene did combine shots from two different days. The exterior shots showing the Wizard being hit by the waves were filmed from another boat while the Wizard was alone during its actual flooding.
"The Wizard was struck by a big wave, and that wave caused the leak you see in the show," Ford said. "The thing we didn't have on camera was the actual wave that struck the Wizard. That was shot at a separate time on the same journey and was an insert edit from the show. We did that for story continuity because we didn't have a boat-to-boat shot."
Despite mixing the footage to create a more dramatic scene, Ford said the story told in the episode remains accurate.
"Everything that you see in the show happened," he said. "Nothing is made up and nothing needs to be made up. The Wizard was struck by a big wave, and that wave caused the leak you see in the show. The show is 100% authentic."
Pickup shotsAlso, Ford denied the suggestion that the show uses re-enactment footage, though sometimes "pickup shots" are utilized.
"For certain things, we do pickup shots for continuity," Ford said. "If the camera didn't run properly when the captain was boarding the boat, they have the captain back up and board the boat again."
Pickup shots are very common in unscripted programming of all stripes.
"There's pickup shots in documentaries," said Craig Borders, a reality series director who is co-chair of the Directors Guild of America's reality TV committee. "Interviews can even be considered pickup shots."
At the outset of the current season, Discovery instructed producers to not use any re-enactments, Ford said. "Catch" did use a re-enactment shot once last year, and the scene was put into black and white and was labeled a re-enactment. Ford suggested that the production outline may have been written by a person unfamiliar with all of the show's guidelines, confusing pickup coverage with a re-enactment.
The leak comes a year after the network admitted another reality hit "Man vs. Wild" took liberties with storytelling. Although the "Catch" sequence doesn't compare to the gaffes committed by "Wild," parent company Discovery Networks always has positioned itself as "a nonfiction entertainment" programmer.
Tuesday's episode was the highest-rated premiere in the network's history and was seen by 3.5 million viewers. The show also is the flagship entry in Original Prods. line of gritty blue-collar reality shows, including History's "Ice Road Truckers" and "Ax Men." The genre has become so popular on basic cable that NBC this month announced two Original Prods. shows set to air in summer 2009: "Shark Taggers" and "America's Toughest Jobs."
Original Prods. declined repeated requests for comment.
Nominated for seven primetime Emmy Awards, "Catch" often is praised for its realism. Noting that Bering Sea fisherman have died while filming the show, the New York Times last week declared that "of all the reality shows, 'Deadliest Catch' is by far the realest."
With that in mind, the lines between reality programming, documentaries and docudramas are increasingly difficult to distinguish. And for many filmmakers, where those lines are remains uncharted territory.
Whatever the case, the inherent danger faced by the boat's crew is undeniable. Viewers have embraced the series because it offers a brand of man-vs.-nature escapism not found in scripted productions.
Last year, "Catch" fans on a Discovery Channel message board thread debated whether one scene was staged. The consensus: never on this show.
"I suppose we're a country that's been desensitized to 'thrills' because Hollywood spews them out so rapidly and easily," one viewer wrote on the board. "That's why I'm so hooked on 'Deadliest Catch.' It's so refreshing to see 'real life' that contains more thrills and chills than even Hollywood can imagine."