Colby Donaldson discusses Top Shop
Colby Donaldson discusses Top Shop
Whether it's William Tell using a crossbow to shoot an apple off his son's head, or Annie Oakley using a hand mirror to make a shot with a rifle slung over her shoulder, history is filled with legendary tales of amazing marksmanship. Now, HISTORY is tapping into these inspiring feats of sharp shooting for its first-ever competition series, Top Shot, premiering Sunday, June 6, at 10/9c on HISTORY.

We recently caught up with Top Shot's host Colby Donaldson. Here's what he had to say about this exciting new series:

I wanted to know is what's the main difference between being a reality show competitor and the host of the show?

Colby Donaldson: Well based on my experience, the food and lodging is much better when you're the host. I never knew or I had no idea that having competed three times now on Survivor but also just being a devout fan of the game for as long as I have - for ten years now - I had no idea it would come into play so much as the host. That's what Top Shot is. It's specifically a competition show, and it's very similar in some ways to Survivor. There were a lot of times when the producers and I would come upon situations where it was familiar territory to me, whether it was dealing with a tie break situation or potentially thinking about merging the two teams. This was all ground that I had covered several times just through my tenure as a competitor.

What would be the main piece of advice you would give to those contestants on Top Shot?

Colby Donaldson: The key to succeeding at Top Shot is definitely going to be adaptability. We're got professionals that in some situations, these guys shoot 2000-3000 rounds a week. Three thousand bullets a week they're firing, but they're only using one weapon. That's how they became professionals is by being absolutely proficient with one weapon. Now we're asking these guys and female to step up using any type of weapon. So, even though they're intimately familiar with a semi-automatic pistol, when's the last time these guys picked up a black powder Kentucky long rifle and tried to hit a moving target? That's what's going to make this so interesting. So, to answer your question: Adaptability will be the key to succeeding in this game.

As somebody who sat through tribal council and had to deal with Jeff Probst's questions, has that made you a little bit more sympathetic to the contestants on this show?

Colby Donaldson: Well, maybe not sympathetic but certainly empathetic. I do know what these shooters are going through just in terms of trying to maintain focus for this long of a period of time. It's not about competing one day or two days or three days. These guys are all thrown together in a house. You're forced to get along with people that you don't necessarily want to get along with, and even more so on Top Shot because we've got both teams living in one house. That's what's going to make for some interesting social situations around the ranch house with these guys. But in terms of Jeff Probst, man, I have a whole new appreciation for how good he really is at his job and as host of Survivor. He's truly unbelievable, and so I've got a whole new appreciation for him and his efforts at that. But also, I never knew until now how much I was sponging off of him and just learning not only as a competitor on the show but just as a friend of his. Always admired his work and now it's paying off a little bit because I've certainly learned a few things from him over the years.

Well in terms of this show, going in, how big of a history buff were you and are there any other shows on the History Channel that you're just huge fans of?

Colby Donaldson:Pawn Stars and American Pickers. I've got the TiVo set on season pass to both of those shows. It was truly a perfect fit for me in terms of the firearms and the gun side of this show in this competition. If I wasn't the host, I would have sent in an application. No question. But it's not just about shooting to me. I am a little bit of a historical firearms buff, and I've been studying and collecting for a lot of years. So, yes, it was a pretty natural fit for me.

Part of the fun of watching these reality competition shows, whether it's Survivor or Top Shot, is getting to know the contestants through the course of the show. Is that something that's an element of this show, that we're going to get personal stuff with these people?

Colby Donaldson: Well, no question. That's what drives the show. We knew just because of the nature of having guns, blowing stuff up, that we knew that stuff was going to be cool. There's no way you're just not going to enjoy watching that. But what you've got to have - what is integral to any good well-done competition show - it starts in the casting and you've really got to put together a dynamic group of individuals. So in casting Top Shot, there were actually a couple of top-ranked national shooters that didn't make the cut, that didn't make the show, not because they weren't good enough with the gun but because they didn't bring enough to the table in terms - and I don't mean just drama and conflict; it's not all about the friction - but we need dynamic personalities. We need people that are going to bring something to the competition and to the entire experience of Top Shot beyond their shooting ability, and I think we got that. So to answer your question: Absolutely. That's what having now seen the second and third episodes starting to come together, you really do start getting invested in the players. As a fan and a viewer, you start picking sides. You start getting those that you want to support and you want to get behind and you start rooting for and you're hoping they're doing well, and of course, we've got a couple of villains speckled in there, too. So yes, it's going to make for a good season, no question.

Okay, and the show has such a kind of testosterone feel about it but the other element of reality shows is having like a gay contestant on the show. Is there room for that on this show? Is there anything that comes into play in the season?

Colby Donaldson: As far as having a gay contestant?

Yes.

Colby Donaldson: Of course. That was the whole thing with females too. We were just bummed we only had one, and it wasn't because we didn't try. Getting the word out and obviously we did pick the best of the best in terms of shooting. I was actually surprised. When I came on board, I hadn't met any of the competitors, and so I had an idea of what I thought the level of talent would be and it's far surpassed that. Throughout the course of the competition from start to finish, I was consistently blown away. So in terms of whether it's male, female, straight, gay, doesn't matter. As long as you can shoot, as long as you're good, and you show up. So, I absolutely think there's room for that.

You mentioned already that there was only one woman selected for this competition.

Colby Donaldson: Right.

I was really surprised to see only one.

Colby Donaldson: Yes, I was too. And again, what it comes down to is just I don't think there were enough that applied. That's what obviously moves it forward. If it does well - we're all hoping it does and we get a season two - we would love to stack the deck more evenly in terms of male versus female. But it came down to who applied for the competition, for the show. It's not just about applications. Then they have to qualify. We took all these shooters out to the range, and we tested them with various weapons at various distances. So it's not about - unlike Survivor and some of the other competition reality shows where it's all about your interview and the psych exam and all that - this show is very different and Top Shot is very different. You must be good enough to make the cut and that's what's going to keep the quality, the standard, very high on this show. So in terms of females, we would love to have seen more. The one we got is unbelievable. She's an ex-Chicago SWAT team. She was Top Shot, top gun, of her graduating class, so she certainly earned her way in. She is by no means the token female on a male-dominant shooting show. That's not the case at all.

Well the question I would ask then is that how do you think it's going to be for her in terms of competition with all these guys? Obviously because she has a police background, she's used to being around guys. I think she's going to give as good as she gets.

Colby Donaldson: Right. Right. Well, the thing is, I don't think the men are going to take it easy on her. She's certainly going to have to earn her spot on the team and in the house. That being said, I don't think Tara would have it any other way. She doesn't want any sort of preferential treatment. And you're exactly right. She's been on the force for a lot of years. She's very used to a male-dominant environment, and it's something we get into with her on the show. What is it like? What is it like bunking up with all these guys? That's another thing. We're talking about a big group of adults, and we're sticking them all in a big house. It is a big house. At least they're not having to make their own shelter like I've done, but it is one roof that they're all having to live under. So, how is that going to play out when all these adults left their lives back at home and their families and everything else to commit to this? So it ought to make for an interesting season.

Being from Texas and an outdoors kind of guy, how well do you think you would have done as competitor on the show?

Colby Donaldson: Well, I guess when I first got hired on as the host, I kind of envisioned myself as one of the competitors and thought I would do pretty impressively. Well, then the game started and I started to see how good these shooters are. So I don't know. The thing is the difference - and I think this is another interesting point - when you have a competition like this where you invite shooters from all disciplines and backgrounds, whereas your military guys and your recreational shooters, those guys are used to picking up any weapon with any sort of sight or optic on it and hitting the target. And that's the way I grew up. I've been shooting since I was six years old, and growing up hunting, I never had time to adjust the scope or the sights according to wind and all the elements. I had to adjust on the fly. We call it Kentucky windage, and that's how you move the gun to hit the target. Well, professional shooters aren't like that. A lot of the professional guys are very accustomed to making adjustments on their weapons and taking time. Well, they aren't going to have that luxury because we're throwing them into challenges that require quick and immediate responses, and that' where you get the intensity and that's why it's so fun as a viewer to watch this whole thing play out. So to answer your question: I don't know. I'd like to think I'd hold in there and do pretty good but it would be tough. I don't know. I don't know that I'm going to answer that question.

Also, what was the best part of the show for you as the host? Since you were shooting since you were six, what interesting things did you learn?

Colby Donaldson: Well, one of the greatest just bonuses for me was every time we introduced a new weapon. In every episode, sometimes twice an episode, we bring an expert on board to give our shooters a little background on the weapon, a little history on the weapon, and also help them prepare for the challenges. So, here I get to benefit from all that. I get to be the sponge and learn from some of the best in the country with these weapons, a crossbow for instance. A crossbow is something I've never fired and so what a treat for me to get to have one of the best - not only crossbow shooters in the country but he also owns one of the largest manufacturing companies of crossbows. So, as an enthusiast, I'm learning - the whole time I'm there to do my job, I'm also a little kid in a candy store just getting to learn about all the various weapons we use, which again is such a neat aspect of the competition, is we don't stick with one weapon. As soon as the marksmen, the competitors, get familiar with a weapon, we're switching. We're moving on. In one week, we may be using pistols and the next it's rifles then all of a sudden we're going to throw a longbow in their arms. So, it really keeps them guessing but it also stays entertaining for the viewer.

What are your thoughts on History Channel hosting its first-ever competition series?

Colby Donaldson: I love it. I love it. It's a big bold move. I know just from being on the production side out here for a number of years now. I've had competition show ideas that I've tried to pitch to different cable networks, and it's not something that a lot of them want to take a bite of. So the fact that History is bold enough to make this move to see how it's going to work, I'm a huge fan of that and obviously it's meant a job for me, so that's a good thing. But also, I've been hosting for a number of years now, and I've obviously been on TV for almost a decade. I'm so proud to be a part of this particular show not only now being in the family at History Channel, which I'm incredibly proud of, but just this show and the production quality. It was so well done from the time I came on board in the first preproduction meeting we had until the winner was announced and the competition was over. I could not have been more thrilled about just the quality of TV that we were making, and that's something I'm very proud of. I can't wait for the viewers to get a look at it because it's their first competition reality show, but it certainly won't look like it. It will look like they've been doing it for two decades.

And what is the part of the show that you are looking forward to airing the most?

Colby Donaldson: That I'm looking forward to airing?

Yes, for people to see?

Colby Donaldson: Our visuals are unbelievable. We had access to some cameras, some super slow-motion cameras and to be able to slow a bullet down not only as it exits the barrel of a sniper rifle but as it enters an exploding target. Visually, especially in high definition, it looks like nothing I've ever seen, and I had high expectations going into this because it was History Channel. They've far exceeded my expectations of what visually is possible on television these days. But then also just the competition that came out. Again, we knew the marksmen were good. We knew they were good shooters, but in terms of strategy, you never know how cut-throat it's going to get. And these players are there to win. Make no mistake. Yes, they've developed friendships. Some of the guys know each other from previous competition around the country, some of the professional shooters, but when it came down to this, it was the gloves are off. We're going toe-to-toe and may the best man or woman win. That was fun to see as host because every time I'm coming together with these guys, the intensity level just continued to ratchet up.

We've seen you on three seasons of Survivor. We've seen you on Rachel Ray and even Curb Your Enthusiasm. Which of your past television appearances best represents the Colby we can expect to see as a host?

Colby Donaldson: Well, obviously, it's a completely different role but I've got to defer to Survivor only because of when you think of competition shows, Survivor 's the benchmark. And I've got to tell you, that's what we were gunning for out there. We want to put together a show that will be revered much the way Survivor is and so they've set the bar. Survivor 's set the bar and we're out there trying to match it or exceed it. So, clearly, it's hard to compare the two because my roles are so different on Survivor versus Top Shot, but it certainly one helps the other. That's it, although I'm very proud of my Curb Your Enthusiasm.

I love that. Speaking of Survivor also, did you talk to your buddy Jeff Probst before you took the job? Did he give you any advice?

Colby Donaldson: You know what? Not before but we bumped into each other at lunch a couple of weeks ago, and he had heard that we had just finished filming it and certainly gave me his well wishes. Again, like I said, I did have a conversation with him before the Survivor finale, and I was just telling him - I called him up on the phone and we chatted for a bit - and I was just telling him how much of a new-found appreciation - and Jeff Probst knows, Jeff Probst knows how much I've always respected the work he does. I truly believe he's absolutely one of the best hosts on television but now my appreciation runs so much deeper and for so many different reasons because I've got to tell you, we were filming for thirty days straight out there. No days off. No breaks. Granted, it's not as rough as competing on Survivor. A guy like Jeff Probst, there's a lot required of you, and he shows up every time and delivers it every time. I obviously appreciate it because I was there watching the guy work. He is a one-take wonder. So what you see on TV is literally him getting it right the first time. So yes, I'd like to think he's happy for me.

Now can you talk about the difference between throwing knives and sling shots compared to the rifles and handguns? Will the slow motion scenes look the same and things like that?

Colby Donaldson: You mean the difference maybe visually?

Yes.

Colby Donaldson: Okay. Well, the cool thing - yes, the throwing knives, sling shot - they really look killer but the advantage we have with the types of cameras we were able to use - the challenge is we can slow anything down. I've got to tell you probably the most visually striking weapon we used was the old black powder Kentucky long rifle because those old muskets, the flint lock. When they fire, there's all these sparks and then this smoke. It's an explosion, and it happens to close to the shooter's face, you're looking at it going "How does that not burn them around the eye when they're looking down the barrel?" And so visually, that just looked unbelievable and also it's a huge steel ball coming out of the barrel, so you can track it well with the camera. So, I've got to tell you, we got so many great photographers, shooters, camera guys, our sound, our entire team was so unbelievable to work with. On the days when we used those big high-performance, slow-motion cameras, we all turned into a bunch of kids because we were having as much fun as the competitors on those days because we're getting to play back some of the footage. Of course, none of the competitors have seen any of this, so they don't know. They have no idea how it's going to look on television and rightfully so. We need their heads to be in the game. It was all of us behind the cameras that were having so much fun with the visuals of it.

In addition to the visuals, did you get a chance to pick up all the weapons and try them yourself?

Colby Donaldson: You know what? I'm not sure how much I should talk about all that? I had a chance to play. There was a time or two when - I mean come on - we've got some challenges that are so unbelievable. Anybody would want to jump on a zip line while you're flying through the air, over a hundred feet in the air, shooting at targets while you're on the move. So, yes, I was a kid in a candy store to say the least. And also, I've got to tell you, and this kind of relates to why I think I'm a pretty good fit as host of this show. In our first episode, our second challenge, we use a Remington 700 sniper rifle. Well, that's actually one of the guns that I have, so I'm intimately familiar with that. And that's when I knew I was home. That's when I knew I was in the right place. When several times throughout the competition, our experts come in to introduce a new weapon and it's something I've got in the gun safe at home. That's always a good thing.

I was wondering if you could give - I don't know how much you're allowed to reveal - but like the format of the show.

Colby Donaldson: Yes, well, thanks for asking that. So, basically, we're going to pit two teams against each other in these historical-based challenges. They're elimination challenges. So, if the team wins that first challenge, they're safe from elimination. The losing team then has to nominate two of its competitors to go head-to-head in an elimination challenge. So, there's going to be two challenges per episode, okay? There's a team challenge and then an individual challenge. So, the two players that are nominated will have a practice session, and then they'll go head-to-head in an elimination challenge. You lost that challenge, you're going home. So, this is a way that Top Shot differs completely from a show like Survivor. In Top Shot, you have your fate in your hands at all times, and if you show up and deliver, if you shoot well, you're not going home. So, you're not getting voted off, you're getting nominated, and that's what makes it very interesting. So, you may potentially have a player that if the teammates don't like him, for whatever reason - whether it's personality conflict or they don't think they're competent enough to be on the team - and they continually nominate him. But as long as they show up to that elimination challenge and shoot well and outperform the competitor they're going up again, they're still in the house. So, that's a really - having played a game like Survivor three times and your fate is in the hands of everyone else, I can certainly appreciate a competition like Top Shot, where you have your fate in your own hands.

And so the team votes for the two nominated players - like whoever gets the most votes - the top two, they're nominated?

Colby Donaldson: Yes, the team that loses the first team challenge, they then are sent...This was a really cool aspect that I wasn't aware of until the game got under way and here we are standing there. Just, it turned out to be unbelievable. So, losing team has to decide who they're going to nominate. Then they are sent to a nomination range, a gun range, and they each have a target with their name on it. And so we're going to have a discussion about how the challenge went and how they all feel and maybe who should be nominated. Then I'm going to call the shooters up one at a time. They're going to shoot the target of the person they want to nominate. So here again, very different from most competition shows. You cannot hide your vote. When you put a bullet in someone's target, they know exactly that you voted for him, and so that potentially plays into someone's strategy because you can't conceal your vote. And then at the end of that session, the two shooters that have the most hits in their target, the most bullet holes in their target, are going to go head-to-head in the elimination challenge. Does that make sense?

Yes, it does. It's like it's part - you want to nominate the person who's going to leave so that they're not around to get you back.

Colby Donaldson: Yes, well that's the thing. Well, what you hope is the person you nominate, yes, doesn't win that challenge because then they're back in the house knowing that you voted for them, which again, it's kind of brilliant by design because it does allow for things to play out back at the ranch house.

Yes, it sounds good. I'm really looking forward to it, Colby. Thanks a lot.

Colby Donaldson: Good. Thanks.

Top Shot premiers Sunday, June 6, at 10/9c on HISTORY.