When Hugh Rowland was first approached about starring on a docuseries about ice road trucking, the burly driver nicknamed ''The Polar Bear'' thought it sounded about as exciting as watching a lake freeze over in his native Manitoba. ''It was silly,'' recalls Rowland, 49, who's been driving 18-wheelers for more than three decades. ''Everybody in Canada drove on ice. Who would watch that show?'' Oh, only about 2.7 million people a week. Now in its sixth season, Ice Road Truckers remains one of History's most popular series, right below the massively addictive Pawn Stars (5.7 million), about a family-run Vegas pawnshop, and the equally fascinating American Pickers (4.9 million), which follows two guys who make a living by sorting through junk and selling what they find.
What began as a special on Discovery in 1999 called The Deadliest Job in the World has exploded into an astonishingly successful genre of unscripted shows that focus on guys doing manly, often dangerous work. Ax Men. Deadliest Catch. Pawn Stars. Swamp People. Bering Sea Gold. Producers describe them as testostero-reality or tough-guy TV, but the networks that air them have a much simpler description: male-viewer magnets. ''I always felt these shows were like romances for men,'' explains Nancy Dubuc, the president of History and Lifetime. ''There is a certain aspirational quality to them. Men think, 'Hey, I might be able to go do that.' It feels very reminiscent of their great-grandfathers.''
That's assuming they had the cojones to drive 30,000-pound trucks over frozen lakes. What compels viewers to check out Ice Road (which follows truckers in the northern territories), Deadliest Catch (crabbers in Alaska), or Ax Men (loggers across the U.S.) is the fascination with how far men will go to earn a living, even if that means facing bodily harm or death. ''People get hooked into the concept of danger,'' says veteran reality producer Thom Beers, creator of Catch and Storage Wars, among others. ''It really hits at the base of their spine. The first thing they want to see is if the characters die. But after a couple of seasons they see that they live, and by that time they are sucked into the soap opera.''
And make no mistake, these shows feature heavy drama. Every season of Ice Road has nail-biting moments where trucks veer off the road or their brakes give out during a treacherous decline. On Bering Sea Gold, a gold miner managed to escape injury on the sea floor when he was pelted with dredging debris from the surface. ''These shows aren't about men against men. They are men against nature,'' says Beers. ''They're like Vikings living on the edge of society.'' Though sometimes the most compelling moments aren't job-related: Fans of Deadliest Catch were devastated when Phil Harris, the chain-smoking captain of the Cornelia Marie, died after a stroke. His final episode in 2010 attracted a record 9 million viewers. (It also helped Catch win its first Emmy the following year.)