September 23, 2010
Sometimes there's a disparity between outdoor television fare and "real world" hunting.
What I wouldn't give to rummage through those cuttings ("digits," I suppose they're called, now that film is obsolete) on outdoor television studios' cutting-room floors. They have just 22 minutes of each half-hour segment in which to make field sports and gun dog management look easy and I'm told they videograph some 10 or 20 minutes of subject matter for every minute of aired programming. I tend to believe that those outtakes are where all the stark reality happens.
On outdoor television, scenes like this are pretty standard fare. Of course, "real world" is usually something else again.
Perhaps hunting and fishing TV itself is becoming obsolete. One cable outfit that formerly specialized in it has changed its network name to suggest a new emphasis on games instead of outdoor sport, though it had long ago drifted further from field sport and into bull riding (mostly performed indoors) and "reality" programs (which ought to be performed in asylums).
We watch televised golf tournaments not because we wouldn't rather be out on the course playing instead of vegetating on the couch, but because the professionals play a heck of a lot better than we do and we duffers desperately seek self-improvement. However, there is not that much difference between Dez & Dash's wingshooting performance and our own, except that not all of us pick a guitar and sing about it afterward.
What's more, you have to admire a program host who is not ashamed of being out-gunned by his mother. Hunting with Hank and offspring Dash, the host's setters, is family fare, and at program's end Dez Young makes a facetious sitcom event out of "never, ever" spoiling your bird dog, while shamelessly coddling the sated canine. Some real-life gun dog operators would draw the line at sharing their hot tub with a setter. Not Dez.
There are those outdoor TV producers who fail to factor script writing into their programming budgets. It turns out that this presents no insurmountable problem for the movies' editors. They simply pencil in whooping and hollering, interspersed with contrived giggling. This strategy, originated by early sitcom producers using canned laughter, and more recently adopted from bass fishing shows, cuts program costs significantly. Writers can be quite expensive these days.
In the case of high dollar programming, both professionally composed and extemporaneous banter are somewhat more useful than the low budget giggling. Missed shots, for example, give rise to some pretty inventive excuses--reference material we can all make frequent use of.
TV bass fishing repartee is comprised solely of two texts, "He ain't very big, but he sure is a fighter!" being the foremost of these and the aforementioned giggles being the other. I do not include, "Why, don't you show the folks what yo're catchin' all them hawgs on, Bubba?" as scripting because it is considered paid programming. But some upland hunting shows are loaded with commercial plugs as well, with everything from clothing and gold panning promotion to destination puffery.
By far the most fascinating performers in televised bird hunting are the canines and their handlers. Until I began viewing televised wingshooting, I had no idea that commercial game ranch dog handlers could think of so many things to say to their pups, not to mention the continual whistling, while the dogs are trying to do their work.
Equanimity is not lost on these remarkably forgiving gun dogs, which, during my many hours of viewing, have never bitten or even peed on the boot of an insufferable handler, despite their being smothered by stupid commands and incessant whistle blowing. Not surprisingly, the more imperturbable of these canines turn a deaf ear to the mind-numbing racket, calmly taking care of business for the camera while the whistle blowers grow blue in the face and hoarse.
Well-known television actor and pro-hunting activist Jameson Parker hosted an outdoor cable network series not long ago, titled A Dog's Life. The show's episodes featured various gun dogs, by breed, performing their respective specialties in the field, handled effectively but un-dramatically, the way most of us handle our pups when we are not on camera. There was bird work, wingshooting action and fetching when appropriate.
There also was unusually intelligent discussion of various breed characteristics and hunting styles along with canine care and training tips and narration by noted gun dog authorities. The series was replaced after only a few episodes by one with more hunting "action" and more shooting. While I enjoy hearing guns go bang as much as the next person, I miss A Dog's Life.
There is another time-proven way to judge the quality of television programming and that is by the quality of the music dubbed into it. Music not only sets the tone for a series; it can become more memorable than the show's subject matter. Imagine the size of the audience that believes The William Tell Overture is really The Lone Ranger theme song.
It seems to me that the retriever high dive games would be a lot more exciting with some bluegrass accompaniment.
Unless you've done it yourself, it is hard to imagine the difficulty of producing a TV hunting program, let alone a series. Wild pheasants and chukars do not wait around for cameramen to get in position for the right angle. Wild grouse and bobwhites seldom flush from cover in which they are visible for more than a fleeting moment. And desert quail don't stay put long enough to provide any camera angle. So videographers are obliged to use planted birds much of the time to depict hunting action scenes.
Shooting preserve operators have a natural inclination to provide gunning and dog work that is as real as possible--"real" meaning as close to wild bird hunting as it is possible to recreate. Some come pretty close--close enough to pass for the real thing on the small screen. Pen-raised quail can be planted where the camera can see all of them rise. They will fly several miles per hour slower than wild birds but even on a big screen plasma they look and sound about the same.
Waterfowling is another story. Camouflage the camera crew and you can record the setup, flights, calling and shooting sequences using wild live action. Retrieves can be re-shot as many times as it takes for the dogs to get it right or until they eat the last dead duck of the limit.
Over half a century ago, the original Whistling Wings film was released (real celluloid--not digits). It won some awards and had a story line. I was in charge of entertainment for my dad's annual gun club meeting and was a competent projectionist for a teenager. So
I borrowed the film and showed it to the meeting attendees.
The film's producers captured dramatic scenes of countless waterfowl staging the start of migration on the northern prairies, guys in dark blinds clutching coffee cups while the clock ticked down to shooting light, loud calling and hushed bustling as gunners got ready to take the incoming, cup-winged pintails. After delivering the kill back to the blind, the dogs showered the shooters with ice water just as duck fetchers have always done.
At my impressionable age, viewing that film (which I did a dozen or more times until I had it committed to memory) was a significant and moving experience in my young life€¦and I was already an avid waterfowler. Moreover, after seeing the film that night, some of those in attendance who hadn't known a bluebill from a bluegill were seen frenziedly trying to hitch a ride in a duck boat.
It has been said that sequels are seldom as good as the original. Last time I checked, they were launching Whistling Wings 14 or so, but the original is still unsurpassed. And the music was pretty good too.
I hope outdoor television long remains on the schedule. At its worst, it is still a good nightlight and something to watch while we clean the guns and oil our boots. At its best, it is a permanent record of the way our dogs and we were and the way our dogs and we are.