Discovery Channel

Reality bites in Alaska when TV crews clog up the frontier

The Lower 48 might love reality shows set in the 49th state, but they’re cringe-inducing to locals

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska might be one of the last places in America where a person can disappear. Off the grid, hundreds of miles from their nearest neighbor, people here can elude their problems and their exes and even law enforcement.

But, as the locals joke, the reality TV producers will still find them.

Alaska is in the midst of a reality television boom that began in 2005 with the premiere of “Deadliest Catch” and was supercharged by a tax credit program meant to attract feature filmmakers. More than 20 reality shows are currently in some stage of production in the state, which has about 735,000 people — fewer than Fort Worth, Texas. The productions tend to concentrate in rural Alaska, where less than half the population lives. Once you’re off the road system, it seems, the cameras are everywhere.

“We have such a low population density and so many shows, it is probably the most highly saturated in the country,” says Michael Bergstrom, a freelance producer who lives in Alaska and has worked on a number of reality shows. Louisiana, which also offers a tax credit, might be close, he says.

A few big-budget film productions have been lured to Alaska by the tax incentive, including “Big Miracle” with Drew Barrymore and “The Frozen Ground,” a thriller staring Nicolas Cage. Another film, “Hunter Killer,” is slated to begin filming in Whittier, a small town south of Anchorage. But by far the biggest slice of the $85 million the state has paid out has gone to reality TV. Between 2009 and 2013, the state approved 65 show applications classified as nonfiction television, according to the state.

Local reaction to all the attention on Alaska is mixed. Naturally, there is money to be made. Though reality TV crews are small, the shows contract with local businesses for lodging, food and transportation. And though it can’t be directly correlated to all the Alaska-related publicity, tourism to Alaska has never been better. But the original idea behind the credit was that it would provide Alaskan jobs, and most of the TV production staff still comes from out of state. In 2013, for example, Alaskans brought home only 15 percent of the wages paid, according to the state.

And, watching many of the shows, for Alaskans, can be cringe-inducing.

Little reality

“People just think it’s nonsense and they are so quick to dismiss it,” says Emily Fehrenbacher, who writes a regular column about reality television for the state’s largest newspaper, Alaska Dispatch News.

It’s the backwoodsy stereotyping, the overblown talk about dangers of animals and wilderness, and the basic inaccuracies about Alaska that turn local people off, she says. A recent episode of MTV’s “Jersey Shore”-esque show “Slednecks,” about rowdy young people in Wasilla, for example, was filmed at two different times of year but edited to seem like it wasn’t. But if you live in Alaska, you aren’t fooled, she says.

Alaska Natives disliked the depiction of rural village life in “Escaping Alaska,” in which young people move from the frontier to San Diego.

“You’re like, OK, it’s winter, then it’s summer, then it’s winter again,” she says.

Discovery’s “Alaska: The Last Frontier,” plays up the survival and isolation of the Kilcher family on a homestead, she says.  But lots of Alaskans know the homestead is a short drive from the town of Homer, she says.

“They can just drive to Safeway and get some fried chicken,” she says. “They are OK.”

Alaska plot lines tend to fall into a couple of predictable categories, she says.

There are the fish-out-of-water shows like TLC’s “Alaskan Women Looking for Love,” where single Alaska women travel to Miami, or TLC’s “Escaping Alaska,” where young people from rural villages move to San Diego. The latter raised the ire of Alaska Native groups for its negative portrayal of village life.

And then there are the expedition/outdoor living shows, like NatGeo’s “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” where participants compete on journeys through the wilderness, or Discovery’s “Edge of Alaska,” about life in the small, remote town of McCarthy, Fehrenbacher says.

The majority of shows focus on difficult or interesting work, she says, from crab fishing to truck driving to mining to running a gun and ammo shop.

White noise

Because the producers gravitate toward extreme personalities, reality show cast members have semi-regular run-ins with the law, which doesn’t endear them to the locals. A few reality show legal troubles in recent memory: A “Bering Sea Gold” star was arrested in a heroin investigation; cast members of “Alaskan Bush People” were charged with submitting false applications for the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend; and the owner of the gun store featured in “Wild West Alaska” pleaded guilty to hunting violations.

Bergstrom, the producer, calls Alaskans’ criticism of the shows “white noise.” He’s focused on pleasing the audience outside. The shows are entertainment, he says.

The cast members of “Slednecks,” which has been described as the Alaskan version of infamous reality TV show “Jersey Shore.”

“People here can complain this show is hokey, this show is stupid. Well, you’re not the audience. The audience is the guy sitting in a Midwestern city in his La-Z-Boy,” he says.

It’s getting harder to find good ideas and potential subjects who have not already been approached, he says.

Alaskans with stories about reality television are easy to find, on the other hand. Many have stories like Marian Beck, who owns a restaurant in the community of Halibut Cove, population 76, a short boat ride out of Homer.  She was contacted by a producer after The New York Times ran a story about her restaurant, the Saltry, over the summer.

She asked producers for a contract, read it and then sent a note politely declining, she says. “They own everything,” she says.

She wasn’t willing to hand over that kind of control of her business. And she was afraid that producers would create drama among the staff. “It’s a lot of money,” she says. “But I work hard at my restaurant.”

Malcolm Kuntz, a college student and carpenter from Anchorage, heard through a friend about an opportunity to be an extra on “Slednecks.” The pay: $50.

When he got to a downtown bar, he was asked to sign a release, he says. Then a producer told him he was to play the part of a guy ogling some of the women from the show, he says. Eventually, he was asked to be part of a scene where the group took body shots. They filmed the same sequence several times. At one point he was asked to lick salt off one of the women.

“It made my tongue tingle with chemicals, you know, like lotion and perfume,” he says.

He wasn’t surprised that the show was so choreographed. “I suspected they were about as fake as they as they are,” he says.

Fodder for storytellers

Neil Darish is one of the stars of “Edge of Alaska.” He says he expected the show to be dramatized. He “plays a character,” a landowner who isn’t necessarily likable, he says. Viewers reacted to him. At first it was hard not to take the negativity personally, but then he decided they were reacting to his performance, not to him.

The show is somewhat scripted, but that doesn’t matter, he says. It captures the ethos of the town of McCarthy. “I’m just kind of fodder for the storytellers. That’s the approach I took.”

Erin Kirkland, a family-travel journalist based out of Anchorage, agreed to be on an episode of the show “Buying Alaska” over the summer. She and her husband played a couple looking for a house in Talkeetna, north of Anchorage. The only thing was that they weren’t actually going to buy a house, and they had no say in which house they would end up pretending to buy, she says.

They looked at three places over three days, wearing the same clothes the whole time so it would appear as if it were one day, she says. “We spent a day at each one, going in, coming out, going in, coming out, paraphrasing what we did and didn’t like,” she says.

She insisted to producers that the show at least say that she and her husband were buying a second home. Everybody she knows in Alaska knows she lives in Anchorage. But when the show aired, it wasn’t mentioned.

The Kirklands still run into acquaintances who ask how they like living in the remote home they “bought” in Denali State Park. “My husband says it’s a little bit of Hollywood,” she says. “I say, no, it’s fake.”

But then, she says, unless you live in Alaska, you’d never know the difference.

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