November 17, 2016

Highway Thru Hell: Documentary television as a force for good

Ian MacDonald / Eye on Canada

Complex wrecks, brutal weather, fierce competition, the stress of being on call 24/7, and the trauma of witnessing tragedy firsthand. This isn’t your average 9-to-5 job. Currently in its fifth season, Highway Thru Hell is a television documentary series about the toughest men in the towing business and the hardships they face while operating along some of the most notorious highways and mountain passes of the British Columbia Interior – in particular, the Coquihalla Highway.

A runaway success since hitting the small screen in September 2012, Highway Thru Hell holds the throne for the highest rated premiere of any show ever on Discovery, a record that extends to the big American premieres as well. For Executive Producer Mark Miller (CEO of Great Pacific Media, the unscripted television and factual arm of Thunderbird Films), the international success and popularity of the series comes down to production value, authenticity and “thinking big.”

“Everyone agreed on a mandate, which was to create a show that was renewable and raised the benchmark for all programs in this genre around the world. Not just Canada, but the world.”

Producing documentaries has been a part of Mark’s DNA since the late ‘80s. He began his career in radio and television journalism, learning and developing his craft for storytelling. Along with a staff job at CBC, Mark worked freelance, producing six-minute documentaries for radio. This work eventually led him to the Discovery Channel, where he began producing hour-long documentary television for Daily Planet. Over 15 years, Mark developed an intuition for finding good stories and good characters. And it was while out on a Daily Planet story about avalanche control in Vancouver that Mark realized the potential for a documentary series about heavy rescue operators.

Partnering with Blair Reekie, who had a background in television and lifestyle programming, Mark started a little company that would eventually become Great Pacific Media. In their first year, the pair developed the idea for Highway Thru Hell, which Discovery bought, making their first show also their first BIG show. A rare feat for any emerging production company, but both Mark and Blake knew they had an original concept.

“It was just obvious, it was right there. I think we were the lucky ones who found it first.”

The task of capturing real life crashes throughout Vancouver and Alberta, while following multiple characters and towing crews is not an easy one. Mark’s production team operates like a fire department, with separate crews working 12-hour shifts. Anything that happens during their shift, Noon to Midnight or Midnight to Noon, they go out and cover it at the same time as the towing companies. It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s brutal – but it’s the only way to do it. And for a documentary about survival and keeping highways open, the added challenge is to not in any way become a drag on the ability of towing companies, police and emergency response services to do their job.

While Highway Thru Hell follows a multitude of characters, the undeniable star of the show is Jamie Davis, owner and operator of Jamie Davis Towing in Hope, BC – someone who Mark fondly describes as a dirt under the nails, self-reliant, MacGyver-type of guy. But when Mark and Blake first approached Jamie with their idea for the show, he was initially reluctant, as the documentary genre carries with it a reputation for being an exploitive medium at times. “I’ve always tried to operate from the perspective that broadcast media can be used as a force of good. We can use it to inspire people; we don’t have to exploit people.”

This approach to documentary television has led to something much more compelling taking place as a result of the show’s success, that is, the impact the show has had at home, in local communities. Quite unexpectedly, the number of accidents on the Coquihalla after the first season that the show aired went down 35%. There were fewer crashes, fewer injuries, fewer fatalities – just less of everything. Now, after five seasons, the number of accidents compared to the year before the show aired is down 50%. So, can one use television as a force for good? Mark sure thinks so.

“Most of the time, the best you can hope for is that maybe we’ll inspire somebody. But it had this other effect, which was it educated people and kept people for hurting themselves. And that makes me feel pretty good.”

Then there’s the small town of Hope, BC – a tiny place on the edge of the Fraser Valley – mostly forgotten but known for its high crime rates and being the location where the Sylvester Stallone action/adventure film First Blood was shot in the early ‘80s. Highway Thru Hell has left a ton of money in Hope and in addition to the locals hired to work on the crew, there are a number of businesses that have built themselves up as a result of production activity in the area. “There was this motel and we ended renting the whole place for our crew through that first winter and we stayed there ever since. They’ve kind of become our family.” This little town that had lost most of its industry is now part of making an amazing Canadian television show.

Currently, Highway Thru Hell is airing in over 170 countries around the world and is broadcast on National Geographic International throughout Europe (where it is among the top five factual documentaries in France), Africa, South America, and Asia; on ProSieben in Germany; on A&E and ABC in Australia; on the Weather Channel in the U.S. (one of the top three programs on the network); and most recently, on Netflix.

Considering the worldwide exposure, Highway Thru Hell has developed a large fan base. An uncommon practice for television programs of this stature, Great Pacific manages the show’s social media components and online content themselves. They’ve built a dedicated community of over 140,000 Facebook followers, who they interact with regularly. “We don’t inundate them with ads, we treat them with respect and we listen to what they have to say. I think that’s absolutely critical, having that core base.”

With a market hungry for more, Mark is hard at work on Great Pacific’s next BIG show. The team is developing a spin-off called Heavy Rescue: 401, which as the name implies, documents the lives of heavy tow operators working on Ontario’s major thoroughfare. They may indeed have another hit on their hands, and Mark is quick to point out that none their success would be possible without the available federal and provincial tax credits in Canada and the Canada Media Fund (CMF). “If the goal is to help to create content that Canadians want to watch, that will play well on the international stage and bring revenue into Canada – we did it, and the show continues to do it.”

Catch new episodes of Highway Thru Hell on Tuesdays at 10pm ET on Discovery in Canada, and stream free episodes on the official website. Join the fan community on Facebook and Twitter and watch a sneak peek of Heavy Rescue: 401, premiering January 3, 2017 at 10pm ET on Discovery.

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