[Cover Story] Reality Check

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Why does the public find pest control-related reality TV programs so compelling?

June 29, 2012

It’s difficult to channel surf these days and not stumble upon a reality TV show where pest control is involved.

Whether pest control is the topic of a TV series, as is the case with — “Billy the Exterminator”; “Verminators”; and “Ratbusters” — or an important component to a program (e.g., “Hoarding: Buried Alive” or “Infested”) there is no denying that the public enjoys watching pest control on television.

PCT wanted to find out just why this is the case, so we reached out to a cross-section of industry professionals — many of whom have appeared on these reality TV programs or were involved with programs that never aired. Their answers paint a clearer picture as to why pest control and reality television have become such a perfect pairing.

“I can top that.”
The next time you’re around a group of people – any group of people – bring up a recent pest encounter and observe what happens.

“After one person tells a story, the next thing you hear is someone else in that group say, ‘Oh yeah, I can top that,’” said Mike Masterson, president of Isotech Pest Management and star of the reality program “Verminators,” which aired in the U.S. from 2008 to 2009. “I don’t know of one person who has not had a memorable pest encounter.”

Then you have the “ick factor,” as Missy Henriksen, executive director of the Professional Pest Management Alliance, refers to it. “Roaches, spiders, rodents, bed bugs, bats and snakes are the types of things that invoke fear in many,” she said. “For much of the public, watching how skilled pest management professionals tackle extreme infestations of these scary, disease-carrying pests satisfies a morbid curiosity.”

Michael Goldman, owner of Purity Pest Control, Thornhill, Ontario, Canada, is a regular on local TV news segments in Canada, and also was the star of reality TV pilot that he is hopeful will get picked up. Goldman thinks that when someone can relate to a subject they enjoy watching it more. “Everyone has had a wasp nest that has terrorized them until the PCO comes to the rescue, unless they tried themselves and it ended up with a trip to the hospital,” he said.

And it’s not just the pest encounters that everyone has a story about – it’s the reactions, said George Williams, staff entomologist at Environmental Health Services, Boston, Mass.

“The situations, reactions, and emotions have to be real in reality TV for the viewer to relate to it and come back and watch it again and again,” said Williams, who appeared on an episode of the Animal Planet’s “Infested,” earlier this year. “The general public relates to pest control because they likely have been in a situation with a pest. Homeowner reactions to pests range from icky to bona-fide body-freezing; it is this reaction that enables the pest control industry to be attractive to the media. “ 

A Viewer’s Assessment
By Hallie Moreland

Editor’s note:
PCT wanted to find out what the average viewer — someone not associated with the pest control industry — thought about the entertainment value of pest control-related reality television programs, so we asked Hallie Moreland, a PCT contributing writer with a background in film/television studies, to review the following programs.

Billy the Exterminator
After watching only a few minutes, it’s no surprise why “Billy the Exterminator” is one of the most popular pest shows on television. The fact that fans can buy countless Billy the Exterminator souvenirs, including a Billy bobblehead and skull sunglasses, only adds to the enjoyment.

“Billy the Exterminator” is helped by its 30-minute running time, which keeps things moving at a quick and lively pace, and its setting of Shreveport, La., an area that’s home to plenty of exotic pests such as alligators, snakes and possums.

The main reason for watching this show is, of course, Billy. Even with his eccentric personality and sometimes unorthodox pest control techniques, as a PCO Billy is incredibly amiable and willing to help however he can, whether that means scaling roofs to find rodent entry points, grabbing snakes with his bare hands or climbing underneath homes to locate possum families.

He’s extremely knowledgeable when it comes to the pests he’s dealing with and is able to discuss their habits and behaviors, along with the threats they pose, to homeowners in an easy to understand way. It’s also encouraging that Billy believes in returning critters to their natural habitats and tries to do so, whenever possible.

RATING: 5 out of 5 cockroaches

Hoarding: Buried Alive
“Hoarding: Buried Alive” is not strictly a pest infestation show, (people who stockpile hundreds of puppets obviously have different issues) but it’s not surprising that quite often the unwillingness to properly dispose of trash and remove excessive clutter leads to issues involving rodents, insects and other unpleasant pests.

“Hoarding” is, without a doubt, the most unsettling of the infestation shows, because the individuals being profiled are often not only dealing with extreme pest problems, but also battling psychological issues.

In an episode titled “Extreme Roach Infestation” barefoot homeowners were shown trudging through cockroach-infested trash that was scattered throughout their kitchen.

In this episode, PCO Billy Tesh and his brave team at PMi, faced the challenge of treating the entire home, using a vacuum to suck German cockroaches out of a refrigerator full of rotten food and from behind pictures that were hanging on the wall.

By the end of each one-hour episode, those featured usually get their homes cleaned and reorganized, and they also meet with a psychologist to get to the root of their issues. Unfortunately, even the somewhat positive final outcome of a “Hoarding” episode is not enough to distract from the horror of the rest of the show, which is very difficult, yet fascinating to watch.

RATING: 4 out of 5 cockroaches

Ratbusters NYC
There’s just something immediately unappealing about rats. So it’s no surprise that the infestation show “Ratbusters NYC” is particularly cringe-worthy. The NYC-based Magic Exterminating team takes on a variety of insect issues, but the main focus seems to be on rodent problems.

In one episode, there were so many rats infesting a convenience store, PMPs discovered the rotting carcasses of several cats that were overtaken by the rat population. The men definitely show off their tough New York attitudes along with their senses of humor, but they also work hard to eradicate pest problems and educate their clients.

And speaking of their clients, some end up being pretty strange.

One client, an aspiring singer who complained of bed bugs, played the exterminators an original song inspired by his infestation and discussed the spiritual journey on which the bugs led him. Seemingly desperate after being told there were no signs of an infestation, he left multiple phone messages about how the bugs were destroying his life.

It’s elements like this that lend a fun vibe to “Ratbusters NYC”, but the show feels too long and it really is a challenge to stomach the piles and piles of dead, disease-ridden rodents.

RATING: 3 out of 5 cockroaches

“Verminators” is definitely a program with a gimmick. Set up like a military ops show, “Verminators” begins with a narrator describing troublesome pest cases as being “code black.”

The PMPs are referred to as “troops,” with their tools being described as their “arsenals.” They even share stats for their technicians, addressing their years of experience and their areas of expertise.

The pest control jobs are set up as missions, laying out strategic plans like “prepping the battlefield, poisoning the perimeter and flushing the enemy.”

Even with all this silliness, “Verminators” might actually be the most informative of the pest shows. A narrator provides detailed profiles of each pest, sharing information about the diseases they spread and where their populations thrive. As areas are being treated, the narrator also explains how various pesticides affect and kill the vermin. They even discuss the costs of treatments and the time it took to carry them out.

Yet, for all of its strong aspects, the subject matter of “Verminators” seems to be overshadowed by the somewhat goofy and unnecessary special ops theme. We all know that fighting pests is a battle, but we don’t need a show to beat us over the head with military analogies.

RATING: 3 out of 5 cockroaches

“Infested!” is set up more like a horror film than a pest control show and relies on reenactments and first-person accounts to tell the stories of individuals who have dealt with extreme infestations. This show features plenty of unnerving camera angles paired with ominous music and shadowy lighting.

While it can be assumed that many people dealing with pest problems feel as though they are living in a nightmare, there’s something about watching dramatized versions of pest infestations that’s just not as engaging as watching the real thing. The reenactments take away from the reality of the experiences and make the infestations seem less threatening since they’re not being seen firsthand.

Possibly the biggest shortcoming of “Infested!” is that it doesn’t heavily feature PMPs. The best part of many of these pest control shows is watching the pest professionals come in and save the day for real clients with real pest problems. While the show features plenty of revolting pests and tells some horrific stories, it all comes across as a little bit campy. With so many strong shows that focus on real pest infestations as they’re occurring, “Infested!” seems to take things a little too far for entertainment value.

RATING: 2 out of 5 cockroaches

Extreme behavior.
Another reason cited for the public’s interest in pest control-related reality programs, is the public’s curiosity with extreme behavior, including hoarding. According to Dr. Fugen Neziroglu, from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, hoarding is defined as “the compulsive purchasing, acquiring, searching, and saving of items that have little or no value. The behavior usually has deleterious effects — emotional, physical, social, financial, and even legal — for a hoarder and family members.”

In recent years, hoarding has been in the spotlight, thanks in part to Oprah Winfrey, who explored this topic on her popular talk show “Oprah.” Within the past few years, reality TV shows like TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” have given viewers even more in-depth glimpses into this peculiar behavior.

Billy Tesh, owner of Greensboro, N.C.-based Pest Management Systems Inc. (PMi), appeared in a December episode of TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” Tesh thinks hoarders are becoming more commonplace as a result of the downtrodden economy. “I’ve noticed that these extreme cases are more predominant today than they were 10 years ago,” he said. “People are more depressed because they don’t have — and can’t get — jobs. It’s a cycle of depression that fosters this fall-back attitude that ‘I can’t overcome anything that I don’t have the money to pay for.’”

EHS’s Williams agrees, noting that EHS has seen similar trends in recent years. “We’ve seen an increase over the last two years in pest situations involving people with hoarding behavior, and I believe an argument can be made that the spike has a direct or indirect relationship to the downturn in the economy.”

Williams added that budget cuts and limited funding have adversely affected social workers and care providers to the point that people are not getting the support services they had in the past. “The workers are asked to do more with less and now have unmanageable case loads,” he said. “As a result a hoarder may have the opportunity to fall further off the grid without anyone knowing their situation.”

Personal Conflicts.
Another facet of a pest control operation that viewers can relate to is employee dynamics. As anyone who has worked in a pest control business can attest, the environment is a hodgepodge of people from different backgrounds with varying levels of education. The work can be tedious and, at times, physically demanding. On top of that, it is route-based work, where on-time service is a must. All of these factors can lead to stressful and, sometimes, drama-filled situations.

Office drama is a major focus of new reality TV show entry “Rambug,” set to premiere later this summer (see related story, page 150). For example, in an episode titled “The Bug Stops Here,” one of the characters, Lil Rob, slacks off at work, and is confronted by his dad, Big Rob. Lil Rob then threatens to fight his supervisor, Ralph.

Rambug Owner Robert Mercante told PCT that he gave producers access to the good, bad and ugly of his business. “I’ve never seen an office not have an argument or a fight, or not have something go wrong. Our show will show a little bit of everything. It will show personalities, it will show infestations. It will show office reality.”

‘Ratbusters NYC’ captures the ‘ewww’ but the focus is on professionalism

The Animal Planet’s “Ratbusters NYC” stars Jimmy Tallman and Michael Morales of Magic Exterminating and the program has hit on a winning formula following the two charismatic service managers who have been friends and colleagues the last six years. The NYC-based pest management professionals tackle pest issues in a variety of accounts ranging from warehouses and small businesses to apartments and single-family homes.

Tallman, age 45, has been involved in the pest control industry since he was 18, while Morales, age 44, came to the pest control industry 23 years ago after working as a corrections officer. Morales said he thinks the duo’s chemistry has translated well on camera.

“Jimmy’s creative and funny,” Morales said. “He always has a knack for getting things done. I come from the science side and he comes from the practical side. So we are good at bouncing ideas off each other and getting things done.”

The Animal Planet filmed “Ratbusters NYC” from 2010 to 2011, and it aired last fall; currently it is on hiatus (due to a legal dispute over the show’s title, “Ratbusters NYC”) but Tallman is hopeful it will return again in fall 2012, noting that producers have more than 300 hours worth of film “in the can.”

This television opportunity came about thanks to a New York Daily News article that profiled Tallman and the job of an exterminator as being one of “New York’s dirtiest jobs.” Tallman recalled, “We were contacted by the production company [Optimum Productions], and then Michael and I went out and shot a test pilot at one of our stops. They really enjoyed it, and one thing led to another.”

Before Tallman, Morales and Magic Exterminating jumped at this opportunity they did their due diligence. Specifically, they negotiated to get full editorial rights to the program to ensure that their job was properly portrayed. “That was one of the biggest stipulations in all the paperwork and the contracts — that everything had to be exact,” Tallman said. “There was to be no fabrications, no lying, no exaggerations. That is why it took so long for us to do the show. We made sure we followed every letter of the law.”

Tallman said he’s been pleased with the final product. “It shows people what exterminating is all about — that’s it’s not a joke. I get a lot of, ‘Oh you are an exterminator, ewww.’ Well, that ‘ewww’ has put food on my table for over 25 years. I liked that [the program] showed the other side of the business; it showed how much we actually do and how much we really help people.”

Morales agreed, adding, “None of what happened on our show was staged — all of that really happened. I also wanted to portray an image of professionalism. We are sort of that stepchild industry that gets left to the side, yet we are part of any organized society. I think those things all came across on our program.”

Both Tallman and Morales said that their television experience was positive and both are willing to continue filming, should the opportunity present itself. — Brad Harbison


Exercising the mind. For many viewers, another appeal of pest control reality television is the opportunity to learn about another profession. Jimmy Tallman of New York-based Magic Exterminating, and star of Animal Planet’s “Ratbusters NYC” said he’s been “taken aback” by the public’s interest in pest control. “When I would describe a day’s work to my friends they would say, ‘You’re full of s***,’ but now that it’s been on TV, they say, ‘Wow, you really do that.’”

Tallman said friends, acquaintances and others have a new-found respect for the profession. “In one episode, we went to clean up after a raccoon that was supposed to have already been removed. Lo and behold, there was the raccoon in the ceiling. We had to use a snap pole to trap him, and he was screaming and urinating as we got him out. After that episode aired people came up to me and were just amazed that that stuff really happens.”

In many respects, the immense public interest in pest control generated by reality TV is beneficial to the pest control industry, according to PPMA’s Henriksen. “Many of the reality shows that represent our industry do showcase the professional’s ability to solve consumers’ problems, so in that respect, they are accurate and help assure the public that professionals are skilled and knowledgeable about their jobs,” she said.

For example, PMi’s Tesh was brought in to assess pest issues at a hoarder’s home for a December episode of “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” There were multiple pest issues at this home, the most serious being what the show called an “extreme roach” infestation. Tesh and his team did a roach cleanout that was based primarily on vacuuming, baiting and crack and crevice applications – and not spraying.

“The program showed, in my opinion, a side of the pest control industry that isn’t just about spraying,” Tesh said. “They showed a lot of vacuuming and other things we were doing proactively. There were thousands of roaches at this home, so I explained to the tenants I didn’t want to leave behind dead cockroaches, which would be off-gassing antigens and creating problems for their allergies.”

In other words, Tesh and his team helped a woman with extreme infestations and also assisted the woman as she took the first steps toward important life changes.

Similarly, Isotech’s Masterson said it was important that “Verminators” was as true-to-the-profession as possible. “I think ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ is tremendously entertaining but if I ever needed to hire a bounty hunter I would want to hire someone like Liam Neeson’s character in ‘Taken,’ and that was what we were trying to portray. In other words, when we do spray pesticides, these are the right products, this is the right application equipment and this is the correct way to do it.”

While providing the public with a good educational television program about pest control is a goal shared by most on-air PCO personalities, the very nature of television is that high ratings are the “bottom line,” and producers will do what they have to do in order to get ratings. Thus, too often, reality TV turns to dramatic effects or sensationalism (what sizzles sells) and the end-result is that PMPs are portrayed as unskilled or unprofessional. As PPMA’s Henriksen noted, “Many of the individuals cast on reality shows have larger-than-life personalities and represent situations in an overly dramatic manner, while others may represent the profession in the exact manner we’d like.”

Henriksen added that PPMA does monitor reality television shows and has offered expertise, editorial suggestions, proper usage guidelines, etc., but that “most shows have not taken us up on these offers as extreme behavior seems to be more consistent with their preferences.”

A perfect storm. So just why has pest control-related television programming piqued the public’s interest in recent years? It’s really been “a perfect storm” of circumstances. Cable and satellite television now offer far more stations than they did as recently as 10 years ago, meaning they are thirsting for programming. Producers have found a winning formula with reality TV programs that both educate and entertain. And pest control is much more in the spotlight thanks to bed bugs. It really shouldn’t, then, come as a surprise that pest control and reality television have made for such a perfect match.

Tennessee company heartened by participation in ABC’s ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’

CROSSVILLE, Tenn. — Dave Passon and his team at Advanced Termite & Pest Control, Crossville, Tenn., experienced the excitement of being on a national television program while at the same time helping a family in need.

Pictured top: Part of the Advanced Termite & Pest Control crew on site for the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” treatment. Pictured bottom left: Advanced’s Dave and Christina Passon. Pictured bottom right: Advanced provided a termite pre-treatment using FMC’s Talstar Professional insecticide.

Dave and wife Christina had heard that the “Extreme Makeover” team was coming to nearby Knoxville, so Christina got in touch with one of the builders, Grace Construction, which then subcontracted with Advanced to provide a termite pre-treatment and crawlspace encapsulation. Passon and a team of seven from Advanced donated their time and services. On the day of the makeover, Passon and his crew arrived at the site at 2:30 a.m., to do the pretreatment. In addition to the early morning timing of the job, Passon and crew had to contend with cameras and spectators, but he said no one complained.

“It was a very uplifting experience. Our guys really enjoyed it,” said Passon. “It brought a lot of excitement to the company and we were proud and honored to be a part of it.”

It was a great industry effort, too, as FMC donated a case of Talstar Professional insecticide through Forshaw for the pre-treatment, while Therma-Stor provided a Santa Fe dehumidifier, also through Forshaw.

Dave Passon

The home that the crew remodeled belongs to Daniel and Mandy Watson, adoptive parents of three children, who created The Restoration House of East Tennessee, a non-profit organization that provides single mothers with housing at a local apartment complex as well as the tools needed (mentoring, advocacy) to be confident, self-sufficient and productive members of their community. Sadly, the Watson’s own home had fallen into disrepair due to a variety of factors, including a crumbling foundation.


This episode of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” is set to air in November. — Brad Harbison


The author is Internet editor and managing editor of PCT and can be contacted at bharbison@giemedia.com.