St. Pete residents on Nat Geo's Doomsday Castle see their fears fuel channel's exploitation TV
LOS ANGELES — After meeting Brent Bruns II and his family on a open-air patio at the Beverly Hilton Hotel nearly three weeks ago, their TV-ready qualities were obvious.
The patriarch, Brent Bruns Sr., is a solid-looking guy with bright, flashing eyes and a confident attitude. His kids all have his striking eyes and seem assembled from central casting: Brent II is the 41-year-old, scruffy black sheep; Ashley, 24, the fashion-conscious, hopeful model; Lindsey, 22, an aspiring businesswoman; Dawn-Marie, a 20-year-old blond tomboy and Michael, her outdoorsy twin brother.
Brent II, Lindsey and Ashley live in St. Petersburg; the younger Brent owns the Rock 'n Roll Bed 'n Breakfast in the city's downtown. But they have gathered here at a bustling media party held by the National Geographic Channel (NGC) to tout a series where the family prepares for the world's end.
"I think this is one of those times in history where we have so many other countries in the world that are seeking to take us down, and they're looking at any way possible to do that," Brent Sr. told a roomful of TV critics the next day, explaining why he has spent decades as a disaster "prepper," hoarding supplies and making plans for the day civilization falls apart. "I feel it's my responsibility as a father to prepare my family for something like that."
So the Bruns family appeared in a episode of NGC's Doomsday Preppers show, earning enough attention to get a spinoff airing at 10 p.m. Tuesday. Focused on completing construction of a giant hideaway in the North Carolina mountains, it's called Doomsday Castle.
Brent II said he saw the spinoff series' five-month production as a chance to kick a three-year pain-pill addiction and become reunited with his family.
"For me, going up to the castle was like doomsday rehab," said Brent II, who acknowledges arrests, a foreclosure and bankruptcy in his past. "I wanted to use this show to clean myself up and I accomplished that mission."
But what mission does National Geographic Channel achieve by featuring a family wrapped up in the paranoid belief that the "end of days" is right around the corner?
It seems this latest series falls into a disturbing trend of trusted nonfiction cable channels experimenting with more sensational material to pull in younger viewers.
Headlines filled last week with snarky stories about Discovery channel's film Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, a faked movie presenting the now-discredited notion that a living version of a 60-foot-long prehistoric shark still exists. The movie, which bore tiny disclaimers, so distorted the public's sense of Discovery's mission that when a dead shark surfaced on a New York City subway Wednesday, some tweeted pictures suggesting it was part of a promotion for their Shark Week programming. The channel issued a statement denying involvement.
In the same way that TLC moved from its original mission as The Learning Channel to become a cynical, cultural freakshow filled with My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding and Breaking Amish, nonfiction channels such as NGC, Discovery and Animal Planet are searching for their own hits in more exploitative, youth-friendly fare.
"They want to bring a whole new generation of millennials," said Brent II, who nevertheless admits he doesn't share his father's passions for "prepping."
"Nat Geo wants to get its message to a younger demographic and you do that with a compelling reality show."
Doomsday Castle, which features Brent Sr. hiring a pack of his survivalist buddies to attack his family with paint guns and smoke bombs, seems an odd way to deliver that message.
The five kids and their dad spend months at the shell of a castle, which basically has a framework of walls erected and a messy bunker. Their inspiration doesn't come from actual disasters, but a vague sense that the "end of days are (sic) near," as Brent Sr. intones during the episode's start. It's a belief he has followed since just before the Y2K scare in 1999 — which proved groundless.
Still, in this new cable TV universe, it seems viewers must do their own research to put "preppers" in proper context.
Because today's nonfiction networks are a little too focused on attracting viewers to let facts get in the way of a young-skewing story.
At a glance: Doomsday Castle debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday on National Geographic Channel.