Reality TV invades Alaska

Kyle Hopkins
Troopers Peterson and Barlow look for kids who ran from them in Girdwood on the National Geographic Channel's "Alaska State Troopers."
National Geographic Channel
National Park Service Pilot Andy Hermansky lands his helicopter on Denali during the National Geographic Channel's "Alaska Wing Men" mini-series. Much of the audience for Alaska-based programming skews male.
National Geographic Channel
Time Bandit crew sort crabs on an episode of "Deadliest Catch" from 2008.
The Discovery Channel
Wildlife Trooper Ken VanSpronsen and Wildlife Tech Leo Pharo patrol the swamps of the Tanana Flats on an episode of "Alaska State Troopers." A year after the show debuted, Trooper recruit applications rose by 45 percent.
National Geographic Channel

Mechanic Quint Hull sat drinking ice tea on his couch in Wasilla watching "Top Gear" on the History Channel -- 60 minutes of light-hearted car porn for gearheads. The episode: "America's Toughest Trucks."

Also: Rating the Alaska reality shows: The best and the worst

There, rumbling across his flat screen, was the Smurf-blue 1983 Chevy pick-up Hull sold last summer for $3,000 sight-unseen over Craigslist. For years, the rebuilt half-ton carried Hull from adventure to adventure across Alaska. Blaring Scorpions or Soundgarden or Motley Crue. Hauling his grandkids to the grocery or towing an airboat to the Little Susitna River.

Now here it was on national television in front of 2 million viewers, outlasting two other Alaska pickups on a road trip to the Knik Glacier in "Top Gear's" highest-rated episode of the season.

"About 50 people called in the first 15 minutes of the show," Hull said.

His buddies shouldn't be surprised to see Hull's rig -- or their friends or their hometowns or even themselves -- on television. With three Alaska-based cable series now showing new episodes, four more that recently finished, others showing up in reruns and even more in the works, the Last Frontier is now a first-stop for reality TV producers.

On a Friday night last month a new Unalakleet-based show about Alaska Bush pilots became Discovery Channel's biggest new series premiere ever with 2.6 million viewers. That's more than three times the state population, meaning no other state -- sorry, New Jersey -- has more cable shows per capita. Put another way: You'd have to watch TV 24 hours a day for two weeks straight to see every new episode of Alaska-based reality programming that has shown since the Discovery Channel launched "Deadliest Catch" in 2005. Reruns and reality TV one-shots, like Hull's truck on "Top Gear" or the time the host of "Man v. Food" ate a 6 1/2 pound dinner at Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse, not included.

TV critics say the avalanche of Alaska series is rooted in the success of shows such as Discovery's Bering Sea crab fishing series, which became a flagship for the cable network.

When something on TV is successful, you can expect to see a lot more of it, said Variety columnist Brian Lowry, who has written about the television industry since 1986.

"There aren't a lot of original ideas left, so it's just a question of taking things that have been done and tweaking them," Lowry said. "There is somebody in an office right now pitching somebody a show, somewhere, that has something to do with Alaska."

"Deadliest Catch" creator Thom Beers says he's working on at least three more Alaska projects.

One's about gold mining. One Beers can't talk about.

He's casting for another one now. The pitch: Families willing to move to Alaska for work will be transplanted to the dark, frozen North Slope. Filming will likely begin just as the sun sets for two months straight, Beers said in recent a phone interview from Los Angeles, his cell phone reception crackling along Mulholland Drive.

"The show's called 'Lock, Stock and Barrow,'" he said.

Burly men and burly beards

TV executives say it's not as simple as slapping "Alaska" on the title of a show. The series that cut through the clutter, they say, build characters that remind people of their friends and family and keep audiences coming back regardless of the exotic backdrop of the Bering Sea or a remote Eskimo village.

That said, in the same way that producers set reality shows in New York when they want to symbolize a gritty metropolis, "Alaska" has become reality TV shorthand for a disappearing brand of frontier know-how, said Los Angeles Times TV writer Mary McNamara.

The backdrop of raging seas, frozen rivers and towering mountains -- literally, physically disconnected from the Lower 48 -- signify escape.

"So many people today drive to the office in an economy car. Then they work in a cubicle. And then they go the big box stores on the weekend," said Clark Bunting, Discovery Channel president and general manager. "What Alaska really represents for a lot of people right now, is the true pioneer spirit."

Lowry, the Variety critic, has described Discovery's "Gold Rush Alaska" as "six burly men with even burlier beards" transplanted from Oregon to Southeast in hopes of striking rich. He criticized the show as a tedious, clunky addition to the "growing niche of crab-catchers, oil riggers and ice-road truckers."

Daily News readers agreed in a recent online survey, blasting the series and others as dumb, drummed-up drama.

But that doesn't mean they aren't watching. The show is something of a hit for Discovery, Lowry said in an interview, drawing about 3 million viewers an episode early in the season.

Until the new bush pilot series came along, "Gold Rush" had been Discovery's best-rated new series debut since "Deadliest Catch," the channel says.

Like other cable channels that heavily feature Alaska shows, Discovery's audience skews male. Some of those viewers, the thinking goes, imagine themselves on the fishing boat or piloting the bush plane or driving the ice road.

"Manly men" stuff, says Beers, whose production company created "Ice Road Truckers" and "Ax Men," along with "Deadliest Catch." He's been filming dangerous jobs in Alaska since the late 1990s, when he made a two-hour Discovery special called "Extreme Alaska."

"They all want to be Alaskans, they just don't want to get their toes frostbitten."

For all those shows, about 40 percent of the audience is women, he said. "Women like real men, you know. So they tune in for these guys."


Discovery network plans at least one more Alaska-based show this year, a three-part "Deadliest Catch" spinoff that features two recurring characters searching for bizarre sea creatures, Bunting said. A kind of "Mythbusters" at sea.

Executives at the History Channel ("Ice Road Truckers," "Tougher in Alaska") and National Geographic ("Alaska State Troopers") said they're planning new Alaska-based series, too.

The Alaska invasion, like shows about housewives or pawnshops, has become a trend within a trend as low-cost reality programming washes across the cable dial.

The production company behind NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" is deciding among three Southeast Alaska communities to film the pilot episode of a potential series on Alaska fishermen's wives, said Josh Herbst, casting director for Shed Media.

"The public's appetite for this type of show is ripe," he said.

Other projects in the low-cost, highly competitive reality TV arena are more hush-hush.


Sgt. Mike Roberts thinks he was spending the night in a Lower Kuskokwim village the night Episode 3 of "Alaska State Troopers" aired on NatGeo. The first time he saw the full episode, titled "Alaskan Justice," was after the channel sent him a DVD in the mail, he said.

Roberts appears in a fewer than 10 minutes of footage, mined from three weeks of filming, he said.

The production company had also been working on yet another Alaska show, "Cowboys of the Sea," about the commercial salmon season in Bristol Bay, NatGeo says.

The "Troopers" clip shows Roberts flying to the Yup'ik village of Quinhagak to arrest Billy Rivers, then 18 years old, for burglary.

Roberts disappears into the arctic entry of Rivers' home. The camera stays outside, showing an ATV in the driveway and grass blowing in the coastal wind.

Roughly a million people watching the episode's debut, couldn't see what was happening inside. But they could hear it.

Rivers says he's not going with the trooper. Roberts tells him they can do this the hard way or the easy way. There are sounds of a scuffle.

Soon Rivers is seen waiting in a holding cell, his head against the wall. "I want to go home," he said. "I miss my mom and dad already. Because I'm the last part of the family. It makes me want to kill myself."

The comment carries added meaning for Alaskans, where the suicide rate is twice the national average. It's even higher among Alaska Native men and in Western Alaska, where Roberts patrolled.

A woman from California e-mailed Roberts after seeing the show. She wanted to know what happened to the young Quinhagak man, whose first days in adult jail were a recurring theme on the episode.

Following the arrest caught on camera, Rivers was charged with burglary again the next year and is now serving time in Seward, court records say.

Meantime, the Fairbanks-based trooper is still recognized by cable viewers in Alaska when he shows up for 911 calls. People try to look him up on Facebook. They want to hang out with him when they visit Alaska.

"For months and months after that episode, I'd walk into houses and stuff as a trooper and people would be pulling out the computer and saying, 'Here, let's watch the show.'"

Troopers aren't paid to appear on the show, and the state Department of Public Safety doesn't get any money either, said spokeswoman Megan Peters.

But in 2009, the year the show debuted, Trooper recruit applications rose by 45 percent, the agency says.

"We would tend to get phone calls and e-mails usually after (National Geographic) would have a marathon weekend," said recruitment Sergeant Maurice "Mo" Hughes in Anchorage.


Roberts, who is now based in Fairbanks, said he was talking with co-workers at the trooper office about all the Alaska TV shows. Maybe there are too many, he said.

"I worry that there might be some burnout because of the oversaturation of Alaska."

Cable executives don't think so.

History Channel, which saw spikes in viewership when shows such as "Ax Men" and "Ice Road Truckers" featured Alaskan characters, plans to announce a new series filmed in the state sometime this year, said David McKillop, History's senior vice president programming and development.

"The fact that they're based in Alaska is an enhancement," he said. "But I don't think people are going to say 'Oh, well I don't want to watch the show because I've seen enough Alaska shows.' "

And then there's Sarah Palin.

The former governor's travelogue, "Sarah Palin's Alaska," exploded on TLC this fall with a 5-million-viewer premiere before cooling in later episodes. The program received an enormous amount of press.

Did her high-profile show lift ratings for other Alaska-based series? Not necessarily.

"I wish it would," said Bridget Whalen Hunnicutt, vice president of development, co-productions and acquisitions at National Geographic. "But I don't think that's the case."

On the other hand, the season premiere of NatGeo's "Alaska State Troopers" -- month's after Palin's show premiered -- was the highest-rated debut for a returning series in channel history.


Of the 15 productions that have received tax credits through the state's new film-incentive program, 10 are nonfiction television projects, according to the state.

But executives said the incentive program, a publicly funded subsidy that allows producers to recoup 30 percent or more of their spending in Alaska, doesn't necessarily factor into their decision to launch a new reality show in Alaska.

"The tax breaks, you get them, they're fine. But we're not running around looking for tax breaks to then make a show in that state," McKillop said. "The show has to stand on its merits."

Production companies that specialize in reality TV -- which can be a bargain compared with shows that require scripts, sets and high-paid actors -- also spend far less in Alaska than feature filmmakers.

A producer for "Everybody Loves Whales" estimated the film's budget, before shooting began, at about $30 million.

Even the low-budget Jon Voight film "Ghost Vision," shot in just a few weeks earlier this winter, spent $6.6 million in Alaska, according to paperwork the filmmakers filed with the Alaska Film Office.

That's more than producers of the latest seasons of "Ice Road Truckers" ($2.7 million) and "Deadliest Catch" ($1.7 million) spent in the state combined.

Production companies and channel executives won't say exactly how much Alaskans -- or people transplanted to Alaska for a TV show -- are paid to appear in the series.

What are those cash-strapped gold miners in "Gold Rush Alaska" making per show? Discovery declined to say.


The latest hit show is Discovery's "Flying Wild Alaska," which features the adventures of pilots for Era Alaska air service and Unalakleet Era co-owner Jim Tweto and his family. In a recent episode, a Cessna 207 is flying about 150 miles south of Nome, according to the show.

The pilot: "greenhorn" Ben Pedersen. The cargo: a two-man Department of Transportation crew who need to fix some runway lights in the village of Stebbins. (The cheechako facing the Alaska wilderness is a staple element in many of the shows.)

The men are chatting, airborne, when Pedersen's eyes widen. A loon smacks into the single-engine plane. Gore splashes a camera mounted outside the aircraft.

Discovery caught Pederson's first "bird strike" on tape.

Unalakleet Mayor William "Middy" Johnson, a musher who finished mid-pack in last year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, watched the drama unfold from his house.

The two state workers riding in the plane when the loon hit are Johnson's nephew and his brother. The mayor had been more concerned how people would react to footage in an earlier episode of pilots loading the casket of a suicide victim in Shaktoolik. He talked to Tweto about it before the show aired, he said.

"I think it was well received," Johnson said. "It actually was more real and close to home to us than some of the other stuff."

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