A new program, 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty, appeared on the television scene on January 10, 2014.
Many people know that I’ve written several books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of blogs concerned with cryptozoology. Others know me from my fieldwork in the 1960s-1970s, or my directorship of the International Cryptozoology Museum during the last 11 years. Fewer people know that, besides appearing on several documentary television programs, I taught a documentary film credit course (from 1989 through 2003) at the University of Southern Maine, executive produced seven federal documentary film projects, and was a paid consultant for reality television programs like MonsterQuest, In Search Of, and Weird Travels.
I’ve studied reality television, inside and out, as well as working in the midst of and for reality programming. I found 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty worthy of an in-depth examination.
Reviews are often quick emotional reactions to programming, coming from a flash viewing of the show, more as an event than anything else.
Most write-ups that appeared in the first weeks after the initial broadcast of 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty have consisted of critical comments outraged at the baseless nature of Bigfoot, looking at the personalities of some of the Bigfoot hunting team members, or upset with the silliness of the alleged reward.
Most of the reviewers seemed to be attacking not the show itself, but the supposed contents of the series of episodes. For example, I grew up in Decatur, Illinois, and I was shocked to read the tone of Jim Vorel’s Decatur Herald and Review article. Vorel began with this: “Each time a brand new BS show about cryptids finds its way onto cable, it’s like my personal equivalent to seeing the Bat-Signal in the sky. And so, I made sure to catch the premiere of Spike TV’s new 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty last week so I could faithfully report on the latest televised attempt to cash in on America’s unceasing fascination with the nonexistent mega ape.”
Could Mr. Vogel have posted a review of the program a bit more professionally and open-mindedly? Of course, he could have, but then he wanted to give the reader some idea of his contempt for Bigfoot material.
Another type of comment came in from those who felt this program was going to promote Bigfooters (those who hunt Sasquatch) in the way they wanted to show them (and themselves).
Take, for example, Melissa Hovey, who posted her first “review” of the show with these observations: “So far, the reactions are not good. I didn’t watch the show myself…but I have been watching the reviews on Facebook…..So far it sounds like the beginnings of a train wreck of epic proportions ~ so grab your folding chairs, something to drink and get ready to explain to your friends, co-workers and family why you are a Bigfoot Researcher.”
Hovey, after some complaining about my tweets regarding not reviewing programs before you watch them, later did write her own review after viewing the program. What she blogged merely reinforced her earlier complaints: “Those who took to social media to express their outrage, or gratitude, for not being selected were SPOT ON.”
Several early commenters who had problems with 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty seemingly were posted by people who had not been picked to be on the program, or had difficulties with those who were on the show. In other words, these “reviews” had more to do with the in-fighting already existing within the Sasquatch field than the contents of the program.
Other early complaints about the program were based on rumors that the “ten million dollars” was an actual bounty for a dead Bigfoot or that someone was going to get that much money. But for those who read the small print, no animal would be harmed in the production of the program and a secondary prize of $100,000 will be awarded to the “last team standing.”
I have no bone to pick with whatever kind of critique people wish or wished to register. Skeptics, true believers, and others have opinions that may be valid to their in-groups, but the bias of the observers needs to be acknowledged. Some debunkers of Bigfoot go into their reviews of Bigfoot Bounty appearing to want to laugh and hate the program due to the mere subject matter itself. Some true believer Bigfooters are upset with the show due to who is on it, without giving any kind of acknowledgment to the fact that it is, after all, a program about a topic they love.
I decided to watch most of the episodes (except for the finale) before I wrote my analysis of 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty. I find that lots of folks missed the point of this program, which is fine, and have not placed it in its proper context. I wanted to take a wider view.
Let’s step back a few paces and look at this series in the context of the developmental and cultural history of cryptozoology portrayed on reality television programming.
The history of documentaries, reality television programming, and reality game shows is a reflection of the evolution of popular culture’s uncomfortable co-existence with film and television.
On January 6, 1973, the anthropologist Margaret Mead published a startling little essay in TV Guide. Her contribution, which wasn’t mentioned on the cover, appeared in the back of the magazine, after the listings, tucked between an advertisement for Virginia Slims and a profile of Shelley Winters. Mead’s subject was a new Public Broadcasting System series called “An American Family,” about the Louds, a middle-class California household. “Bill and Pat Loud and their five children are neither actors nor public figures,” Mead wrote; rather, they were the people they portrayed on television, “members of a real family.” Producers compressed seven months of tedium and turmoil (including the corrosion of Bill and Pat’s marriage) into twelve one-hour episodes, which constituted, in Mead’s view, “a new kind of art form”—an innovation “as significant as the invention of drama or the novel,” as Kelefa Sanneh shared in The New Yorker, May 9, 2011.
Sanneh correctly observes, “Reality television is the television of television.”
How has cryptozoology mixed with reality television? What has 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty told us about this?
We have to go back to the 1940s, before the word “cryptozoology” was even in fashion, to see how television was handling weird creatures, some of which may have been cryptids. The first Believe It or Not TV series, a live show hosted by Robert Ripley himself, premiered March 1, 1949. Early into its run, coincidentally after the 13th episode, on May 27, 1949, Ripley died of a heart attack. The series was hosted by Ripley’s friends and associates. The program continued until it ended after a second season, on October 5, 1950. It set the standard for “weird” and “reality” in those days, and has been redone and rebroadcast in various forms, over and over again. In 2000, it appeared again, renamed as Ripley’s Believe It or Not! on TBS, and hosted by actor Dean Cain, who happens to be the current host of 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty.
Reality television naturally has evolved, but it is intriguing to see the threads that connect the past to the present.
You Asked for It was a popular reality-based show created and hosted by Art Baker, the program originally aired on American television between 1950 and 1959. Later versions of the series were seen in 1972, 1981, and 2000. It was on the 1972 version where a moment in Bigfoot history cropped up. Alleged hoaxer Ivan Marx showed his Bossburg “white Bigfoot” film on You Asked for It on October 21, 1972. (Marx associate Tom Biscardi – involved with the Georgia hoax – is still around, as are Marx’s sons, appearing on today’s reality programming.) Footage of Mokele-mbembe was said to have been shown on the 1980s’ edition of You Asked for It.
That’s Incredible! was an American reality television show that aired on ABC, from 1980 to 1984. The show was co-hosted by John Davidson, Fran Tarkenton and Cathy Lee Crosby, and was produced by Alan Landsburg Productions. Some cryptid sidetrips occurred. But it was another Landsburg product that would bring cryptozoology into focus on television.
In Search Of was a series that was broadcast on television weekly from 1977 to 1982, devoted to mysterious phenomena. Besides Fortean mysteries, the program conducted investigations into the controversial and inexplicable (including Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monsters). It was created after the success of three one-hour TV documentaries produced by creator Alan Landsburg: In Search of Ancient Astronauts in 1973 (based on the book Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Däniken), In Search of Ancient Mysteries and The Outer Space Connection, both in 1975 (later adapted into popular paperbacks written by Landsburg). All three featured narration by Rod Serling, who was the initial choice to host the spin-off show. After Serling’s death, Leonard Nimoy was selected to be the host. It is Nimoy that most people recall today as the host.
“In Search Of was a forerunner of today’s abundance of Discovery Channel pseudo-documentaries which frequently (though not always) favor belief over skepticism,” wrote encyclopedia author David Coleman in his The Bigfoot Filmography (McFarland, 2012).
In 1978, Landsburg produced a Bigfoot documentary using portions of two In Search Of episodes (“The Monster Hunters” and “The Yeti”) called Manbeast! Myth or Monster, based on his book In Search of Myths and Monsters. Though Nimoy had written the foreword to Landsburg’s book, he did not narrate this documentary.
With a major mystery, a television magazine format, a famous host, glamorous reporters, the heavy use of economically available archival footage, and re-creations and reenactment–bingo, the reality television show formula came into being, bigtime, in the late 1980s. The high-quality prototype for the times was Unsolved Mysteries on NBC-TV, and repeats are screened today on cable. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows’ authors Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh state: “This unassuming documentary series was one of the most popular reality programs of the late 1980s and the inspiration for dozens of network and syndicated imitators.”
In the 1990s, Unsolved Mysteries ran reports, for example, on the expeditions of Tom Slick, the Minnesota Iceman, and Peter Byrne’s search for Bigfoot. Other series, from Sightings to Animal X, carried regular reports on Bigfoot and other cryptids.
Then a new type of reality television appeared, a variety of reality game show that placed real people in unusual situations. Today, this type of programming is called “elimination shows.” When it began, it just blew peoples minds, in terms of popularity.
The television show Expedition Robinson, created by TV producer Charlie Parsons, was the grand breakthrough. It first aired in 1997 in Sweden and was later spunoff in a large number of other countries, including the USA, as Survivor. The template was the idea of competition and elimination, in which cast members (i.e. contestants) battled against each other and were removed from the show until only one winner remained.
Reality television saw an explosion of global popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the successes of the Big Brother and Survivor/Expedition Robinson franchises.
In the new century, paranormal reality shows such as MTV’s Fear, put ordinary people into frightening situations which allegedly involved the unexplained. Then came the upswing in series on the inexplicable, such as Celebrity Paranormal Project, which promoted investigation as the goal. Some series like Scariest Places on Earth challenged participants to survive the investigation; whereas others such as Ghost Hunters use a recurring crew of paranormal researchers. “In general, the shows follow similar stylized patterns of night vision, surveillance, and hand held camera footage; odd angles; subtitles establishing place and time; desaturated imagery; and non-melodic soundtracks,” even Wikipedia observed.
Noting the trend in reality shows that take the paranormal at face value, The New York Times culture editor Mike Hale characterized ghost hunting shows as “pure theater” and compared the genre to professional wrestling or soft core pornography for its formulaic, teasing approach.
This trend in television production, combined with an interest in nature-oriented topics, would have an impact on the Bigfoot field. With animals being a perennially interesting topic and outdoor recreation being rediscovered as a family-friendly activity, discovery-adventure-nature programs on Bigfoot and other cryptozoological topics began to appear rather regularly in the 1990s.
Ancient Mysteries, History Mysteries, Animal X, and other seemingly documentary-style contributions to solving the Bigfoot and other cryptid mysteries blossomed during this decade of the 1990s, and MonsterQuest, Destination Truth would continue that trend into the first decades of the 2000s. Most of these shows took a straightforward zoological approach to the subject. Viewers have come to view Bigfoot, Nessie, and other cryptids as part of the outdoor landscape, an animal to be discussed, and a mystery to be pondered. The production companies for these programs began to serve as a form of funding for some mini-expeditions, taking the place once filled by zoological institutions in the previous centuries.
Todd Disotell was on National Geographic’s Is It Real? in 2006. MonsterQuest (where Todd Disotell also appeared; he’s a judge on 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty now) was one of the earliest in-the-field cryptozoology investigation shows during this era, a few years before Finding Bigfoot appeared on the scene. MonsterQuest was on the History Channel from October 31, 2007 to March 24, 2010. Finding Bigfoot premiered on May 30, 2011, on Animal Planet, and will broadcast its final season beginning in the fall of 2014. Almost concurrently airing with Finding Bigfoot, Beast Hunter began airing on March 9, 2011 on National Geographic Channel, with host wildlife scientist Pat Spain. It ended after five episodes because of Spain’s health concerns.
Tracking these creatures from the ancient oral traditions to their modern celluloid images, it’s clear that our picture of the creature has changed, as has the purpose of our quest. Today, Bigfoot has become a gateway through which people are realizing their passion for the outdoors, mysteries, and wildlife.
Therefore, I see 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty as the natural, logical, and timely addition to Bigfoot being acknowledged in popular culture, via a Sasquatch elimination program. It is actually a monumental milestone in cryptozoology. Instead of millionaires, tropic survivors, nerds, twenty-somethings, and attractive bacholerettes, you have an entertaining, lively, cinematically remarkable program about Bigfoot and Bigfoot hunters. It is scientific in its methods, while retaining the curious quest for the possibilities of a large unknown hairy hominoid species. It is quite compelling.
10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty is produced by Charlie Corwin’s Original Media (Swamp People, Ink Master) with Corwin, Mike Riley and Jon Kroll (The Amazing Race, Big Brother) as executive producers, Kerry Schmidt as co- executive producer, and Scott Templeton as consulting producer.
I interviewed the program’s Jon Kroll for this essay. One question I asked was about what intrigued him about doing this series in the first place and was he inspired by any of the older shows. He said, “My own interest was drawn to the project not due to any other program, but when I discovered that nearly one third of all Americans believe in Bigfoot despite there being very little credible evidence of any kind. Why not put the phenomenon to a true scientific test?”
How serious was the film production for this show?
Co-executive producer Kerry Schmidt noted on the net, “We shot 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty from more than 100 source cameras.”
How does a program deal with such a high volume of possible scenes? Kroll told me: “Alpha Dogs provided excellent post production finishing. Kerry Schmidt and I were blessed also with an amazing team of award-winning editors from shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race, editors who took a break from the big network shows due to their own curiosity about the subject matter.” The massive amount of footage became a swiftly moving, high-caliber, high production value documentary experience.
Kroll’s work has involved directing three feature films and producing dozens of television programs, including The Amazing Race, for which he was honored with a 2004 Primetime Emmy Award. His status added much to the program, as did Corwin’s and Riley’s.
When you think about it, to have such an approach to Bigfoot – sort of a combination of Finding Bigfoot, In Search Of…, and MonsterQuest meets The Amazing Race and Survivor – scientifically, this is an exciting moment in cryptozoology television history.
Perhaps the title of the series is a handicap, but 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty has proven to shown Bigfooters as they really are – real people who sometimes dislike each other and fight to win a competition – and the truth behind how difficult it is to find Bigfoot. The finale deserves your viewing – as does the entire series.
10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty has earned a remarkably significance place in the cultural history of cryptozoology and television. But will Spike TV realize it too late, and not continue the series into another installment?
The February 7th program on the little known Spike TV network got a whopping 890,000 viewers, Kroll told me. But the program needs a lot more viewers for the finale – and any marathon repeats – for it to be renewed for another season. (The final episode of 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty will be broadcast at 10 pm Eastern, Friday, February 14, 2014, on Spike TV.)
But for me, as a former documentary professor and reality television observer deeply interested in the legacy of cryptozoology in our culture, this program will go down in history for elevating the topic to a new level of integration in our society.
I’ll end this long examination with a quote from one of the former participants on 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty, Dax Rushlow (shown above, on left, in one of the program’s production shots).