'Deadliest Catch': Discovery Finds Itself in Uncharted Waters
Earlier today, I sat down for lunch with Josh Harris (left), son of the late Capt. Phil Harris, and F/V Time Bandit Capt. Johnathan Hillstrand, just prior to them taping an appearance for NBC's "Tonight Show With Jay Leno," airing, well, tonight, to talk about the personal ups and downs of the Harris family on Discovery Channel's crab-fishing reality hit "Deadliest Catch."
Watch for those interviews starting tomorrow in the From Inside the Box blog at Zap2it.com (UPDATE: Click here for the story), but first, here's part of my chat with Discovery Channel president and GM W. Clark Bunting.
We got on the phone to talk about Discovery's upcoming "Shark Week" -- click here for the video that introduced Craig Ferguson as host of the 23rd annual event, featuring my new favorite character, Brian the Puppet Shark -- but of course, we began our conversation talking about the phenomenon that is the "Deadliest Catch" fan reaction to the illness and passing of Capt. Phil Harris.
(The episode featuring his passing airs tomorrow night, followed by a tribute on the season finale of "After the Catch." Click here for more info.)
This is not the first time that one of the Discovery Communications networks has dealt with a death, since Animal Planet star Steve Irwin died from a stingray barb in September 2006.
"That was a different circumstance," says Bunting, "but a close friend as well. That was one two-hour special. I went down, did my remarks at the funeral. We did the show, and off you go.
"This (with Phil Harris) is much harder, because this is the reality of reality TV. The boys (sons Josh and Jake Harris) wanted this story to be told. So, unlike Steve -- where that film will never, ever been seen by anybody -- this is reality TV becoming real, in the most, I won't say harsh, but raw way.
"When you see that show, you'll see that it's very spare. It's very bare, very little voice-over, practically no music. It's just that powerful."
In many ways, both Discovery and Original Productions, which produces "Deadliest Catch," are making this up as they go along in covering the Harris saga.
(At right, Phil and Josh Harris)
"There are no instruction manuals on how you deal with issues this challenging," says Bunting, "other than common sense, dignity and, of course, the brand that is Discovery. But this ... I've never dealt with an issue like this. I've never seen anything like this.
"It's a really fascinating look at something every family goes through, but very few families would allow cameras or want cameras to be there. But that was part of Phil's wishes."
Click here for details of the late-January stroke that took Harris' life in February, at the age of 53. While that may not seem very old, Harris was a man who packed a lot of living and adventure into his years, whether on Alaska's Bering Sea aboard his beloved crab boat, the Cornelia Marie, riding motorcycles, running several businesses and even building birdhouses.
"He was one of those people," says Bunting, "who I don't ever think would be a graceful old man. It's one of those really difficult struggles creatively and editorially. When is too much? When have you gone over a line?
"How much do you do to fulfill Phil's wishes? But at the same time, you're just using common sense, because, again, creatively and editorially, I have never seen anything like this."