A 12-year-old Alaskan hunter tells the “Finding Bigfoot” crew that he saw an 8-foot bigfoot-like creature up close in a forest clearing. The show uses this computer-generated bigfoot as the boy describes his encounter.
For some viewers, Animal Planet’s new series “Finding Bigfoot” is a comedy: Did you hear that guy perform a bigfoot howl?
For others, including the show’s stars, it’s a drama of serious investigations into reported bigfoot sightings in Oregon and across the country.
Animal Planet executives may not care how people react to the show as long as viewers tune in. And they are.
Over the show’s six-episode first season, “Finding Bigfoot” has averaged 1.2 million viewers in its Sunday night premieres, making it among the top three series on the Discovery-owned cable network (“River Monsters” and “Whale Wars” are the other Animal Planet hits.)
Each episode features the four-member “Finding Bigfoot” team investigating images or video captured of the ape-like bigfoot , often followed by a night-time exploration using infrared cameras to detect heat signatures.
Occasionally, a computer-generated bigfoot is shown in re-created scenes.
Next week, Animal Planet will announce it has renewed “Finding Bigfoot” for a 10-episode second season to begin airing in early 2012. There are also plans for the network to air a two-hour special this fall around Halloween tentatively titled “The Squatchiest Place on Earth.”
Asked why the network would devote a series to a creature that’s yet to be proved exists, Animal Planet president and general manager Marjorie Kaplan deadpanned, “It doesn’t exist?”
This weekend’s season finale of “Finding Bigfoot” was filmed at Ike’s Pizza in Leaberg, about 20 miles east of Eugene on Highway 126. The episode, called “Behind the Search,” is a one-hour reunion special with the “Finding Bigfoot” team taking questions from an audience while recapping their six-episode first season, including an episode filmed in the Willamette National Forest.
The four-person team, led by Bigfoot Field Research Organization founder Matt Moneymaker, investigated a video shot by kayakers on the McKenzie River that appears to show a biped – a bigfoot? a human? – standing near some rocks on the shoreline. Moneymaker tends to see bigfoot everywhere, while field biologist Ranae Holland is the team’s skeptic.
“It is true that we felt if we were going to do the show that we have a skeptical voice,” Kaplan said. “She represents the viewer a lot of time,” said Keith Hoffman, “Finding Bigfoot” executive producer for Animal Planet. “Viewers want to see people who don’t just totally believe, although Ranae has told me she would like it to be true (that bigfoots exist).”
In the McKenzie River sequence, Holland quickly concludes the creature on the shore is not a sasquatch, but a human. Although it didn’t make it into the final episode, Portlander Cliff Barackman, the show’s level-headed educator (imagine the professor from “Gilligan’s Island”), said he agreed with Holland; he had previously researched and debunked this reported sighting at his website.
Barackman taught sixth grade and music appreciation at Cascade Heights Public Charter School in Milwaukie, taking a six-week leave of absence earlier this year to film the first season of “Finding Bigfoot.” He won’t return to the school in the fall because of his commitment to the show’s second season. He said students got a kick out of his interest in bigfoot.
“They absolutely loved it,” he said. “Some would say, ‘Mr. B., I don’t think bigfoot’s real,’ and I’d say they are but you don’t have to believe.”
Barackman, 40, was friends with two of the other three “Finding Bigfoot” cast members before he was cast on the show and he’s had his sights set on a TV gig for a while, previously appearing on A&E’ s “Bob Saget’s Strange Days” (for a sasquatch hunt episode) and on History’s “MonsterQuest” (as a bigfoot expert).
Barackman said he always had an interest in monsters as a child and was a fan of the 1970s paranormal TV show “In Search Of. …” At Cal State Long Beach, he spent time in the library between classes, pulling random books from shelves to read. Barackman said he stumbled upon a book of scientific, peer-reviewed papers about sasquatches, which ignited his interest in bigfoot. From there, he said, “It got worse and worse.”
He moved to Oregon three years ago, in part for the easy access to the wilderness for bigfoot expeditions. “When I looked at the climate and the cultural climate – the eccentric, weirdo-centered culture – I thought I’d feel comfortable having the opportunity to do gigs playing guitar, meet interesting people and have access to squatchy places,” Barackman said. “I go to bars and restaurants in Portland and I’m not bashful about bigfoot. I’ll ask people, have you seen a sasquatch or know somebody who has? And in Portland it averages one out of five people say yes.”
So, has he ever seen a bigfoot? Barackman said he’s collected footprint samples, recorded vocalizations and been screamed at from 40 feet away, but his only possible sighting was through a thermal camera during a “Finding Bigfoot” shoot in North Carolina. He takes criticism of bigfoot believers in stride on the show and in conversation.
“They can be as wrong as they want,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me at all. The reality of the species does not depend on their belief nor does it depend on mine.”