The other day I found myself watching Coal, a reality TV show about life in a West Virginia coal mine. For a couple of hours, it was engaging television, as we saw the rigors and practical problems of digging coal out of the ground. The miners themselves are practical, salt-of-the-earth types, a reminder that we’re not yet a nation of empty airheads. They speak with West Virginia accents, but I guess their parents told them not to mumble, so they’re actually more intelligible than many characters on TV.i
I remember an illustration of a coal mine from my third-grade social studies textbook. It showed a little electric railroad operating in the mine to bring the workers in and the coal out. The mine in Coal isn’t like that: the passages are about 3.5 feet tall, so everyone must walk stooped over. The vehicles are electric, but there is no railroad. There is very little infrastructure to speak of: most of the electricity for the equipment comes from a cantankerous generator in a trailer.
The mine isn’t run by a big company. The ‘president’ of the company leases the mine site from some unnamed source, and then has the challenge of generating enough cash flow to pay the lease, as well as the employees and other costs of running the business. In any case, big companies don’t run coal mines by digging tunnels underground anymore. They just dig and blast from the surface, making a really big hole, and then take the coal out.
I wonder about the economics of running a mine as the basis for a TV show. Given the dollar figures that they discuss, I would have expected that the fees paid by the TV producers would relieve a lot of the financial pressures on the mining business, and the payment to the employees would mean a significant boost to their paychecks. But what sort of deal did they actually make?
It’s engaging television, and I’ll probably watch it again. But it says something about our country that people doing hard work and actually producing something is now unusual enough to merit a TV show.