After an eight-season run on the Discovery Channel with Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe is cleaning up his act and heading to CNN with a new series, Somebody's Gotta Do It (premiering Wednesday at 9/8c). On each episode, Rowe seeks out regular folks to explore why they're passionately committed to unusual jobs, avocations or causes — dirty or otherwise. His first hour takes him to Las Vegas where he suits up for an aquatic show and then to Independence, Missouri, to meet the curator of a hair museum. Somebody's Gotta Do It is the latest entry in CNN's growing roster of documentary-style programs, led by the top-rated Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Rowe says he had to make the cable news channel his new home base after learning his work was too real for today's reality TV. He explained the move in a recent chat with The Biz.
TV Guide Magazine: You had a great run with Discovery. Why did you leave?
Mike Rowe: A couple of things happened. With respect to Dirty Jobs, we did 300 jobs and we shot in all 50 states. We were getting to the point where people wanted the show to get bigger, and honestly, I'm not interested in big shows. I didn't want to do a special episode of Dirty Jobs with Gwyneth Paltrow or John Stamos in the sewer. I just didn't. The show is about anonymous people in towns you've never heard of doing things you didn't know existed. I didn't want that to fundamentally change.
TV Guide Magazine: Was Discovery clamoring for that?
Rowe: It wasn't just them. It was the industry. And that is the second point. I felt like I was in a place where nonfiction TV doesn't mean what I thought it meant. Unscripted no longer means without a script. I looked at Duck Dynasty and Amish Mafia and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and all the hit shows that were coming out of the nonfiction space — they had writers' rooms. So, between that trend in nonfiction and the fact that I was in season eight of a show that was, frankly, physically killing me, I had what felt like a logical conclusion.
TV Guide Magazine: You're uncomfortable with the fact that the reality genre is less real and more scripted.
Rowe: That's entirely true and I've never been shy about it. I couldn't sell Dirty Jobs today. In fact, I took Somebody's Gotta Do It all over the place. And people were interested, but the thing I ran into again and again was the same question, 'Well, how is it going to end? How will each segment end?' and that question made it very clear to me that the level of desired certainty in nonfiction programming was fundamentally at odds with the kind of show that I wanted to do. I randomly ran into [CNN president] Jeff Zucker on his first day of work and we had a similar conversation. And he said, 'Well seriously, what do you need?' And I said, 'Honestly, an hour of primetime, some jet fuel and a small crew.' And he laughed and said, 'Well, I can do that.' Right now news has more in common with traditional nonfiction programming than most people who produce nonfiction programming.
TV Guide Magazine: So the major difference between your show and what we've seen in the non-fiction area lately is...
Rowe: We're deferring to the people we meet and really giving them the lion's share of the time. It's a tricky thing to be a voyeur and a fly on the wall, and at the same time keep the [show] on its feet. But, to me, the way to do that is not to be clever or facile or adroit at production, it's to be unapologetically honest with the viewer.
TV Guide Magazine: This isn't really your first job in network news. You were the announcer for ABC's World News when Diane Sawyer was the anchor.
Rowe: Yeah. I was for three or four years. I think in 2006, I went on Good Morning America and she was setting up the piece and she was looking at the monitor. She glanced up and saw some video of me walking from a barnyard holding a 200-pound pig in my arms, and she had started a sentence with no clear idea of how to end it. What she wound up saying was, 'And I understand you've had some experiences with a pig?' And I looked back at her and I said, 'Look, Diane, I'm not going to lie to you. I've made some mistakes.' And she snorted on the air, really loud. Everybody started laughing and we went to a break and she looked at me and she said, 'I don't know what this means, but I'm going to remember you.' She called me two years later and I was the voice of her show for a few years after that. So I guess if you can make Diane snort...