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Man Vs. Wild: The Long History Behind Bear Grylls' Reality Show

Premiering in 2006 and finishing its popular run after seven seasons in 2011, Discovery's "Man vs. Wild" was one of the most popular reality TV shows of the 2000s. Over the course of its run, host Bear Grylls—whose accent, penchant for drinking bodily fluids, and daredevil nature have made him a household name—is dropped into some of the world's most extreme environments, including the African Savannah, the Panamanian jungle, Patagonia, and even Siberia.

Once there, Bear demonstrates how people might survive in harsh environments with practical (and impractical) knowledge. While the show might seem a tad silly now (especially since winking impersonations of Bear are viral sensations), "Man vs. Wild" had a substantial following during its initial run. For example, the show's fourth season premiere had the biggest (non-sports) primetime cable audience.

So strap on your hiking boots, grab some matches, and pack a sleeping bag, because we're hiking through the long history of "Man vs. Wild." Hopefully, we can find some facts rich in vitamins and nutrients to sustain us on the journey.

Ever an adventurer

While the premise at the center of "Man vs. Wild”—drop a guy in nature, see if he can figure out a means to live through the ordeal—is a fantastic one, it's hard to argue the show would've ever had the legs it did without Bear Grylls. With his seemingly infinite knowledge and meme-ability, the host really makes the show what it is. However, before he was the world's leading authority on foraging for berries and rappelling down cliff faces, he was a child born Edward Michael Grylls.

He received the nickname Bear from his sister when he was a week old and it stuck. Bear's been in the survival game since he was a young man. He was a British Scout in his youth and claims his time in the Scouts gave him his natural confidence (in 2011, the Scout's Association dubbed him Chief Scout). As Bear got older, he continued to pursue his passion for outdoor activity. He attended Eton College and founded the school's first-ever mountaineering club. Clearly, Bear's always been a man with wilderness on the brain.

A military mountain man

However, before Bear led "Man vs. Wild," he had a couple of truly intense adventures. From 1994-1997, Bear served the British military as a member of their 21st SAS (Special Air Service) Regiment (via The Sun). For context, that's a bit like being a Navy SEAL in the United States military, in that it's very difficult. He served two tours in North Africa. His service came to an abrupt end when his parachute failed to fully inflate during a jump in Zambia

After a grueling recovery, Bear set out to climb Mt. Everest 18 months later at the age of 23. Bear being Bear, he almost died during the first stage of ascent when the ground suddenly gave way beneath his feet. Eventually, Bear made it to the summit, completing a lifelong dream. Given this extreme survival experience, it's no wonder Bear slotted right into "Man vs. Wild." Plus, even though some parts of "Man vs. Wild" are staged (more on that later), it's hard to argue that Mr. Grylls is anything but the real deal after diving into his resume.

A wild success

The "Man vs. Wild" pilot aired in March 2006 on Discovery Channel. The first episode saw Bear try to make his way through the Rocky Mountain Range. The series kicked off in earnest later that autumn when the show dropped Bear into the Moab Desert in Utah.

The show, which ran for 73 episodes, was an enormous success. "Man vs. Wild" reached an estimated 1.2 billion viewers over the years, making it one of the most watched shows in TV history (via Living Magazine). It even spawned a video game in 2011.

While the show would change slightly over the years (more on those changes later) and introduce celebrity cameos, it's a testament to Mr. Gryll's on-screen charisma that the show reached so many viewers. Also, considering Discovery and WarnerMedia's 2022 $43 billion merger, there's a strong case to be made that Discovery would not be where it is today without the success of Bear and "Man vs. Wild." Who knew a guy climbing, swimming, and occasionally drinking his own urine could turn into ratings gold?

A worst case scenario show

One thing that separated "Man vs. Wild" from other popular survival-based reality shows (like "Survivorman") is the show's stunts. Whether Bear is rafting a river, belaying down an icy cliff face, or running through the jungle, it seems as if the stakes are always high on "Man vs. Wild."

This is, of course, by design. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Bear explained the general approach to producing the show, saying that "Man vs. Wild" always features worst-case scenarios because a straight-up survival show would be boring. To Bear, textbook survival, which revolves around waiting for rescue, is inherently dull TV. He'd much rather show his audience what to do if they're trapped in quicksand, attacked by a crocodile, or bitten by a snake.

Luckily for fans (though maybe not so much for Bear), he's pretty correct about what's entertaining. It is infinitely more interesting to watch somebody squeeze drinkable water from fresh elephant dung than it is to watch a grown man lay down in a man-made hut to conserve energy while hoping for rescue.

Scandals over authenticity

Given the show's consistently bizarre survival scenarios (and its operating philosophy), it's no wonder it didn't take too long before critics arrived to question the supposed "reality" captured on camera. In 2007, a member of the crew came forward and reported some of Bear's evenings were spent in hotels, decidedly removed from the elements.

Later, it was revealed that a raft Bear built from makeshift materials for an episode was actually constructed by on-set consultant Mark Weinert. This crew member also claimed "wild horses" were really rented from a ranch for the show. The British network, Channel 4, running the show at the time even launched an investigation into "Man vs. Wild" to determine its authenticity (via Reuters).

While the news incited a media backlash when it first broke, the show itself continued.  

Coming clean

After the show's authenticity was called into question, the show made a point to directly address its staged elements instead of keeping them from the public. In response to the backlash, Discovery issued a statement: "Moving forward, the programme will be 100% transparent, and all elements of the filming will be explained upfront to our viewers" (via BBC News).

Following their announced intent to keep the show transparent for viewers, the show added a voiceover that explained some of the situations Bear found himself in were staged.

While some viewers may have felt the show lost some of its authenticity when the news that the show's more dramatic moments were planned, the show continued to run for a full seven seasons. Overall, it's hard to argue that the show would be more exciting if Bear wasn't prompted to scale cliff faces and take a makeshift raft down an unruly river.

Grylls vs. Stroud

In the 2000s, there was a bit of a reality survival TV boom. Hits from the era include "Man vs. Wild," "Dual Survival," the long-running game show "Survivor," and "Survivorman." However, some stars of these shows, "Survivorman's" Les Stroud in particular, were not happy to be lumped in with the group.

In a 2015 interview with VICE, the "Survivorman" host sounded off on his feelings about being compared to Bear Grylls, saying: "I understand why the comparisons get made, but there really is no comparison. This is not me with pretentiousness or bravado or ego but I actually don't think there is overlap."

He essentially argues that his self-produced show is about DIY survival tips and tricks and feels that Bear's basically making scripted television. Whether or not you think Bear has earned the same survival street cred as Les Stroud, we can all probably agree that an episode featuring a team-up or competition between the two men would be dynamite. Make it happen, fellas; it's what the people want.

On set injury

Even though aspects of "Man vs. Wild" are staged, Bear has had some serious injuries on set. The worst occurred when the team was filming an episode in the Canadian Rockies. A camera rig high above Bear's head came crashing down when its restraints broke.

Bear told Men's Health that the camera missed his head by a matter of inches and landed directly on his left leg. The speed of the impact and the weight of the camera gave Bear an enormous hematoma and instantly caused the reality star's left leg to engorge due to swelling. In the end, Bear had to be extracted by helicopter to make it to a hospital. The wild man has gone on to say the accident was his closest call while filming the show.

While "Man vs. Wild" may feature staged set pieces, Bear's never completely out of danger. It's a bit of a dangerous irony that Bear's worst injury on set came from production equipment and not the elements. It just goes to show: show business can be a survival test all its own.

A hilarious Ferrell goes 'Wild'

The Discovery Channel isn't known for its comedy, but in 2009, Bear Grylls and company produced maybe the funniest bit of content the network has ever put out. In a special episode titled "Men vs. Wild," Bear Grylls and funnyman Will Ferrell teamed up for a romp around the Arctic Circle.

The result is genuinely hilarious. Whether Will is describing the branches of the tree he's climbing as "crotch busters" or asking Bear to signal when it's time to drink their own urine, the belly laughs are plentiful (seriously, track this episode down and check it out). The episode is also an early indicator of Bear's future success on TV.

It proved that Bear's solo survivor act could work with a celebrity counterpart. The host with the outdoorsy most is clearly game for Ferrell's antics and still delivers valuable (if rarely applicable) survival tips throughout the episode. In the end, the whole thing plays like proof that Bear's future series "Running Wild"—which sees Bear team up with celebrities—would definitely be a success.

Jake Gyllenhaal, mountain man

Another surprisingly successful celebrity one-off in the show's history arrived in 2011, when Bear took actor (and apparent wild man) Jake Gyllenhaal into Iceland's mountains. Gyllenhaal is game for everything. He forges ahead into blizzards, gets excited about standing close to the edge of a possible crevasse, and generally jumps headlong into whatever challenge the two guys face.

At one point during the episode, the pair crosses a massive ravine during 90-mile-per-hour winds. There was no safety line for the stunt. The two men worked out that the entire exercise equated to doing about 180 pull-ups when all was said and done. In an interview promoting the show, Bear told the LA Times he thought Gyllenhaal did incredible out in the wild.

Sometimes, celebrity appearances on reality TV shows can end badly (see Dennis Rodman on "Celebrity Apprentice"), but Mr. Gyllenhaal landed in Iceland's wilderness like a fish decidedly in water. Here's hoping he signs up for more projects that bring him into nature.

PM Modi joins the show

In a special episode of "Man vs. Wild," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on the show in 2019. 3.6 million tuned in to watch the episode (a series high) as the two men explored the wilderness surrounding the foothills of the Himalayas.

The episode was not without controversy—The Guardian described it as a propaganda puff piece—but it's an interesting proof point of the astounding reach of the show's (and Bear's) appeal. Bear's trip into the rugged wilderness with a nation's leader wasn't unprecedented, as he and President Obama ventured into Alaska in 2015 (to the likely displeasure of the Secret Service).  

The episode itself is largely dedicated to discussing ecology issues and a casual discussion between PM Modi and Bear. Also notable is Bear's description of tigers as "ninjas of concealment." The episode definitely isn't a piece of hard-hitting journalism, but it is an interesting cultural artifact nonetheless.

Contract termination

After seven seasons of "Man vs. Wild," Discovery terminated its contract with Mr. Grylls in 2012. Reports from the time explain that the reality TV star and the network couldn't come to an agreement over Bear's contract. While it's hard to know exactly what Bear Grylls was thinking and feeling about the decision at the time, his media career was booming.

By 2012, Bear had authored over 10 survival books, had a touring live stage show, and was a household name. In his statement about the news, Bear stressed how much he loved his time on the show and his plans to keep producing survival projects for his dedicated audience and fans.

Plus, at the time of his contract's cancelation, Bear reportedly lived with his family on a private island off the coast of Wales, owned property in Malibu California, and had a house barge on the Thames River in England. All of this to say, Bear handily survived Discovery's decision to terminate his contract. Although the news left some "Man vs. Wild" fans worried about what would become of Bear next, as usual, Mr. Grylls had the answers.

Bear's future

Even though Bear was no longer with Discovery, he didn't stay out of the wild TV game for too long. In 2014, Bear Grylls' new (and ongoing) series "Running Wild with Bear Grylls" premiered on NBC. The show is similar in format to "Man vs. Wild," but with an interesting wrinkle: each episode sees Bear accompanied by a celebrity guest. Over the years, Bear's been out in the wilderness with everybody from Ben Stiller and Zac Efron to Michelle Rodriguez and Shaquille O'Neal.

In 2022, the show pivoted again when it moved from NBC to National Geographic and was rebranded "Running Wild with Bear Grylls: The Challenge." Bear explained the "challenge" part of the show was a specific survival tactic his guest had to learn and master before the episode's end. Reviews of "Running Wild" and "The Challenge" have been mostly positive, The Daily Beast even called it the best celebrity talk show.

Given all of his success, it's safe to say Bear's wild adventures aren't winding down anytime soon.