Surviving Survivalist Television

(Story originally written for

At the age of 23 Bear Grylls was the youngest climber ever to ascend the summit at Mount Everest. Recently Bear drank his own urine for the amusement of thousands of television viewers. In 2000 Grylls traveled around the island of the United Kingdom on a jet ski. While filming in the African savannah Bear took a hearty bite out of a recently deceased zebra. In 2003 he led the first-ever unassisted crossing of the North Atlantic Arctic Ocean by boat. This past fall Bear skinned and disemboweled a camel then used the empty carcass for shelter.

Bear Grylls is without a doubt a self-professed adventurer. He’s also the host of Discovery Channel’s extreme survival show, “Man vs. Wild.” You can judge for yourself which of the feats mentioned above encompass Bear the accomplished outdoorsmen or Bear the over-the-top TV personality.

Then there is Les Stroud, the more refined Canadian super outdoorsman and host of Discovery’s other hit survivalist series, “Survivorman.” Stroud is less concerned with the flashiness of reality television, choosing technique and survival tactics over sensationalism. In terms of popularity, Bear’s got him beat. Let’s face it, we’re a culture obsessed with over the top drama.


To be fair both survivalist series are very similar in their intentions – send a man off into the wild solo and learn about the various survival techniques needed to brave the elements. The shows are highly informative, even though the chances of the average viewer being forced to climb inside a dead camel are about as slim as said viewer even seeing a camel outside of the comforts of a zoo. Then again, television has always been an escapist medium.

So which show is the more realistic? Which show is worth the viewers 45 minutes? To answer this question one must question what they look for in a television show of this nature?

For the true adventurers, “Survivorman” is hands down the most authentic look at what it takes to survive in a multitude of different scenarios. Stroud walks viewers through the basics like finding potable water, making fire, staying warm, hunting and gathering food where you would least expect it, etc. Each episode is based off an entirely plausible scenario of being stuck in the wild (canoeing accident, lost in forest, broken down vehicle, even an impressive episode where Stroud is on a raft in the middle of the ocean). To top it off Stroud is alone for a whole seven days without a camera crew (a luxury Bear so controversially benefits from). Despite this arguably more impressive setup, the restless viewer might find Stroud’s no thrills how-to lessons to be a bit trite.

Grylls falls at the other end of the spectrum – action, suspense, and the gross out element. Almost every episode of “Man Vs. Wild” begins with Bear doing a back flip of sorts from a plane or helicopter into his newest destination (seriously, even during a scene as simple as jumping six feet from a tree branch into a marsh, Bear finds it necessary to wow viewers with his acrobatics).

Man vs. Wild

Bear’s stern British narration voice makes even the simplest of feats seem to be life threatening. Above all, when this man takes on the wild he seems destined to look for the most extreme ways of surviving, rather than the simplest or safest methods. Sure, while you could technically spear a salmon and eat it while it’s still alive (as our Bear so fittingly does in an episode braving Alaska) why not just wait till it’s dead?

In one episode of “Survivorman” in which Stroud is stuck in a Georgia swamp, he shows viewers an old Native American technique for catching fish and frogs in a makeshift water corral trap. Whereas Bear Grylls seems solely concerned with putting his body through excruciating unpleasantness for the pleasure of the television audience, Stroud is more focused with informing us about the many survival techniques out there and the history of his given environment.

With a name as blatantly over-the-top as Bear Grylls it’s no wonder that the self-proclaimed survivalist/thrill seeker’s show has higher ratings. An extreme sounding name such as Bear or the even more ridiculous, Dog the Bounty Hunter is ripe for sensationalist reality TV, which is what the average viewer yearns for.

Television viewers these days enjoy watching people eat horrible things or live out excruciating situations from the safety of the living room. “Survivorman,” which was created before “Man Vs. Wild,” is currently on a hiatus from TV with a third season possibly in the works. “Man Vs. Wild” is still going strong, proving that no matter what ratings always prevail in the television arena. While “Survivorman” is without a doubt the superior program when it comes to the authenticity, Bear’s on-screen personality will always garner the most viewers and nails the entertainment draw of survival television.