It was not quite a year ago, while eyeballing the blockbuster freshman-season ratings for “Swamp People” in anticipation of the reality-TV series’ second-season return, that History Channel executive David McKillop quietly foretold the TV future. “I’m very bullish on the Atchafalaya Swamp,” said McKillop, senior vice president of development and programming for the network. “There’s a lot of room there for growth and storytelling. I think we have a very healthy future.”
He was speaking for his network and its swamp-set hit, but the larger TV business was paying attention to History’s reality success, too.
Now, no fewer than a dozen Louisiana-set reality shows fill the TV grids or will soon, from “Cajun Pawn Stars” to “Ragin’ Cajuns” to “Bayou Billionaires.”
Tax credits get partial credit, but the tough-as-nails characters who first emerged from the Louisiana swamp and into viewers’ hearts blazed the ratings trail for a lot of the production that followed.
Returning for its third season on Thursday at 8 p.m., “Swamp People” averaged about 3 million viewers per episode in its first season.
The total rose to 4.1 million in season two, topping out at a whopping 5.5 million for the July 2011 season finale, the most-watched show on cable that night, and second-most watched program overall (behind CBS’ “Big Brother”) among the advertiser-desired demographic of viewers age 18-49.
Given that splash, you have to wonder: Has success changed the cast of “Swamp People?”
LOUISIANA REALITY TV SERIES
“Billy the Exterminator” (A&E)
“Cajun Blue” (A&E)
“Duck Dynasty” *Premieres March 21* (A&E)
“Pit Bulls and Parolees” (Animal Planet)
“Bayou Billionaires” (CMT)
“My Big Redneck Vacation” (CMT)
“Ragin’ Cajuns” (Discovery)
“Sons of Guns” (Discovery)
“Swamp People” (History)
“Cajun Pawn Stars” (History)
“Girls, Guns and Gators” (Travel)
“Tough Love” (VH1)
The alligator participants were unavailable for comment.
But here are a couple of clues as to how the show’s humans are doing:
One: Joe LaFont and Tommy Chauvin called Monday from New York City, where History had arranged a miniature mock-up of a swamp in the Chelsea Market food mall.
The display, which will operate through Sunday, includes Cajun and Creole food from chef John Folse, music by Henderson’s Sac au Lait, folk-art demonstrations, live gators and turtles and even a live Louisiana politician, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.
Two: The call came the morning after History’s big ad buy in NBC’s Super Bowl broadcast, 30 seconds and $3.5 million of gator goodness.
Drama heightens in season three with the arrival of Tropical Storm Lee, which disrupted the September 2011 season.
“It was off to a good start and … we ran into some bumps,” LaFont said. “We lost four or five days without catching any gators and had to wait for the water to go down.”
But a little seasonal wind and rain can’t match the drama that’s occurred around the “Swamp People” cast.
“It’s life-changing,” Chauvin said. “There’s no such thing as introducing yourself to someone somewhere. Everybody knows who you are.”
So far, both Chauvin and LaFont say they enjoy interacting with fans.
“Sometimes you’ll be at a red light and people will shout out,” LaFont said. “It’s a real good feeling to have all the kids coming around. It’s a real nice thing for us.”
Some of those kids, he continued, bring drawings they’ve made. Other fans bring bullets for LaFont to give to Chauvin.
“We have all kinds of jokes come our way,” LaFont said.
Chauvin said fans tell him to “quit giving Joe so much (guff)” and that they “just enjoy the show.”
Both men have experienced faraway fans seeking them out on their own turf.
“I get up in the morning and look out in my yard and there will be two or three vehicles out in the yard,” LaFont said. “It will be vehicles I’ve never seen in my life. They just sit there and wait for someone to come out. I’ll just bring some coffee and come out. A lot of times it’s kids. It’s happened to me several times before.
“I’m OK. I deal with it. We got a nice show going on. They must like what we’re doing on TV.”
Some fans have discovered that one way to reach Chauvin is to look for him at a favorite bar-restaurant near his home.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “They show up there. I got four or five people showing up there every day. From Virginia, North Carolina, they travel from all over the place. The owner calls me and I go there and meet up with them and have lunch, sometimes.”
Chauvin’s first impressions of The Big Apple: “A lot of people. Tall, tall buildings.”
And: “It’s a little bigger than New Orleans, that’s all.”