Saturday, January 16, 2016

Reality Check of Alaska Reality Shows – My Experience

I read recently that there are 36 Alaska Reality Shows at one time! What? Doesn't anyone want to see characters in Wisconsin or Maine? How about Puerto Rico?

My experience with these shows is limited to conversations with seven – count 'em: seven - producers who have contacted us over the past three years.

We have (politely, I hope) declined them all. Often we suggested other people we thought might be more interested in them or more interesting to viewers. Below, I'll share my observations from those discussions.

Since we don't own a TV, I have seen only a smattering of random episodes when I have visited relatives and friends in the Lower 48 who invariably ask, “So, do you know the guy/gal on this show?” However, I am as entertained as any Alaskan in local feedback on programs by people who are more “in the know.” Occasionally, writers for Alaska Dispatch News review a show, usually by humorously panning the obvious fakery of the situation.  Then, locals chime in at the bottom of the on-line article to add more details. For example, one show looks like it is remote but apparently the camera is planted in the parking lot of a pizza joint! It points across the road to an empty stretch of woods where that show's “hero” does whatever he does to look like a mountain man. In general, Alaskans accord a loss of credibility to participants. On the other hand, I viewed one episode of an ongoing series (Building Alaska) that depicted realistic experiences directly analogous to our real-life endeavors, and in our neck of the woods, too, so maybe there are some other realistic ones out there.

In our case, we have been contacted by two producers each in LA, NY, and Europe (UK and Netherlands) as well as the National Geographic (two producers, one in Singapore and one in Hong Kong). Four of the seven were independent producers rather than name brand shows. Each small firm seemed to toss out story ideas, film an episode or two and then endeavor to sell the idea of a series to a distributor. 

The topics broached by these producers with us included the following:

*Mistakes we made, as city slickers who moved out to a remote home in the Alaska woods.
* An “average week” with us in the winter/ in summer
Life skills we could teach their host to demonstrate
Life skills a rural child could teach a child host
* “Alaskan-type jobs” of people living remotely
* Pretend we were shopping for a remote property and then choose ours
* Compare/contrast our life in Alaska with a family living in someplace tropical, I think it was Costa Rica

Of these topics, the first sounded like they wanted to film “the three stooges in Alaska.” Sure, we have made plenty of mistakes, but I didn't want to recreate them for the entertainment of people across four time zones. The Alaska job question was interesting but the producers didn't like our jobs. They didn't think that two people with graduate degrees telecommuting in finance and business was very visual, even if it with solar/wind power 42 miles from the nearest road. Understood. (Although readers of this blog tend to be curious about that very juxtaposition, I understand that no one wants to watch me write or see my husband call New York or India.)  We were happy to suggest others.  For greater visual appeal, we recommended a flying veterinarian, an alternative energy provider, and a real estate firm that specializes in remote properties as well as various neighbors, friends, and business contacts.

All of the producers were amiable and curious, so calls were fun but also rather disconcerting. All were city-folk and most had never been to Alaska. They were CLUELESS about conditions here, like winter daylight hours (I referred them to, distances, and logistics. One asked if we could teach them spear fishing. Another asked about filming a winter bear hunt, or at least nice dark bears roaming a nice white landscape.  (Readers:you know that bears hibernate, right?) All of them wanted LOTS of help in devising the plot of a show, where to stay and what to bring for an estimated 5-7 days of filming for one episode, what venues to film in each season or time of day, and what other people to contact.

From these and other comments/questions, it was clear that none of the production companies intended to use/pay local film-making or even plot advisory talent but to fly in people from Outside. Perhaps hospitality and transportation companies benefit from Alaska reality show expenditures, but local film makers have not jumped on that bandwagon. These conversations convinced me that the Alaska film tax credit was another of Alaska's ill-conceived giveaways to Outsiders rather than a benefit to a local, nascent industry. I'm glad that tax break has been revoked.

After a while, I just referred all inquiries to my husband. Although I have been comfortable writing and giving speeches for 30 years, I felt vulnerable with the idea of being filmed and edited by a stranger for purposes they might intentionally not tell me and over which I would have no voice. My impression is that many “reality” shows make fun of Alaskans, Southerners and others outside the LA basin and NY metropolitan area. No thanks.

Eventually, my husband, who was more inquisitive about the process, concluded that the time, effort, and lost opportunity cost for anyone who “has a day job” is enormous and probably best suited to someone who really, really wants 48 minutes of fame, no matter what the pratfall, or who has a job he/she can market through participation on the show. For us, five days of filming plus all the other help they wanted spelled time not doing things we valued more, including, of course, the privacy for which we moved here.

In terms of compensation, the two documentaries offered no payment to the “subjects” (us) but did offer to bring in food and supplies to house and feed their people, since we are so remote. One “reality”show (as opposed to “documentary” ) offered a $1,500 honorarium. The various documents we saw offered no rights to the subjects of these videos. With others, we were not interested enough to inquire.

There may be others out there (and I'd be the last to know), but the only realistic episode I have seen was a recent hour of “Building Alaska.” I can say so because two of the three characters were filmed doing things that we do ourselves (felling large spruce trees and hauling supplies by snowmachine and sled along frozen rivers and cross country.) In fact, the featured haulers follow the exact same trail we do and confront the exact same steep, icy river bank trail that we dread, too. (Although the icy trail looked like warm weather ice to me - when it rains one day and freezes the next night and then warms up again the next day).  Anyway, my husband returned last week with three drums of gasoline and three 100 lb propane tanks (so we are set for our annual requirements) after a nice snow dump padded that slippery ridge trail, and is out again today hauling back two 300 gallon water barrels which, with rain water, will make watering my upper gardens much more reliable during the dry summer season.  Our needs are low, so he can pick the best days for our triaged list of priorities.

I admit that I don't understand America's interest in 800 channels of infomercials and “reality shows.” I too, like fiction, entertainment, and documentaries, but “Ice Road Truckers?” Really? What does the popularity of such shows reveal about viewers? Do couch potatoes yearn for a life of labor away from the suburban man cave? Or are they watching these shows thinking, “Gee, I'm glad that I don't live like that,” or “I can laugh at that red-neck goofball and feel superior” as they flick the remote control and grab another brewsky out of the refrigerator and popcorn out of the microwave?

If it is the former, I encourage wannabe viewers to explore the wilderness within 2 hours of most cities and to volunteer for organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together (City) to gain practical construction and landscaping skills. If it is one of the latter two reasons, I hope those viewers do indeed enjoy the life they lead. But, may I suggest - be prudent. Buy a back up generator for a power outage in the man cave. Learn a skill that improves your adaptability to inconvenient surprises.  You will feel proud of that.  You will use it. 
Readers: I'd really value your interpretation of this reality TV aspect of American/other? pop culture.  Please let me know your thoughts. 


  1. As a european i don't like the american style of reality shows.. They want to reach and keep a broad range of viewers, hence the added 'reality' or shall I say completely unrealistic reality? It's about time they find another interest. Shows as 'alaskan bush people', 'railroad alaska' or 'yukon men' are a disgrace and an insult to the people they are trying to reenact.. So far I have only seen one show which was real, because the people in it were true offgridders and trappers. People who had no interest other than show their true lifestyle in all it's facettes. An inspiration and lead for future offgridders or people interested in the alaskan lifestyle. Or producers too maybe..
    Good work on the blog. Keep true to yourselves and keep posting!

  2. I'm thinking the TV series Northern Exposure has something to do with it, it made Alaska look so appealing, especially to people like me who live in South Africa. While we swelter in the heat of El Nino's revenge and the worst drought for years, looking at all that snow is really appealing.

  3. I totally agree with you, these shows are not really realistic. I can watch some of them only with an overdosis of skepsis. 95 percent is staged. I read about using a german shepard dog as a substitute for a wolf in the dark, they probably think we are all blind. It was a mountain man episode, in which tom oar "sees" a wolf behind some trees one night. I think the story was just boring. Depicting alaskan life should not become a TV joke.
    Thank you for you wonderful blog and good luck.

  4. I would have been tempted to try the juxtaposition show, if it included a stay in Costa Rica. :)

  5. I've quite enjoyed ice truckers on occasion and I lurk around Alaskan off the grid blogs as well. Mostly because it blows my tiny mind how people cope and cater for extreme cold. I still remember one episode of ice truckers where the guy they interviewed mentioned that his eyes were becoming frozen over at one point. My ignorance of cold climates is such that I believed him. Is this something that can happen? I assume that it is and to be honest I've never heard of this kind of cold. I like alaskan off the grid blogs because for similar reasons, I'm amazed at how people handle the cold and the lack of amenities so capably. I live in a temperate Mediterranean climate of Australia. Personally I'd never live in Alaska, but I'm super impressed with those that do.

  6. Thanks for your interest and also for questioning info on those "reality" shows. I don't know about eyes freezing over, but I can certainly attest to snow/precipitation freezing on eyelashes/eyebrows. Also, my eyes sometimes tear up in wind/cold, and the tears freeze on my face. Maybe that is what the show meant?

  7. It was only when 'good' ie pleasurable to watch shows such as Life Below Zero and The Last Alaskans began to be shown here (rural Australia) that I became interested in learning more about life in Alaska.

    Until then it seemed that the sole purpose of shows about Alaskans was to expose the dumb, stupidly risk taking, argumentative, animalistic, ugly side of Americans. But, with the implication that because these shows were about people who lived differently from the majority of the population that they, of course, didn't represent the average American (but I doubt this implication was perceptible to the majority of the rest of the world).

    My hope is that more quality shows such as those mentioned above will be made as they:
    - Show the younger (than me) generations it is possible to live a happy, contented life without being tied (dominated?) by mobile phones and the internet.
    - Participants are presented in a way that quietly allows viewers to appreciate their tenacity, inventiveness, ability to adapt to changing situations and sheer determination to overcome any obstacles that may affect their ability to continue to live their chosen lifestyle - particularly Sue Aikens (Life Below Zero) and Heimo and Edna Korth (The Last Alaskans).
    They don't yell, shout, scream, blame others or adopt a holier than thou attitude when things go wrong. They just accept, adapt and move on. No big overacted dramas, no faked arguments or engineered accidents, just personalities it is a pleasure to listen to, watch, learn from and admire.

  8. Nice post!! Thanks for sharing.