Reality Check: 'Ultimate Survival' producer talks 10 years of Alaska reality TV

Emily Fehrenbacher

Brian Catalina started working as a producer for the National Geographic Channel in 2012. At the start, the channel asked him, "If you could make any show, what would it be?"

Catalina had grown up reading National Geographic, and to this day his 83-year-old mother still gets him a yearly subscription for his birthday. He's no stranger to Alaska -- he was the showrunner for the first season of "Deadliest Catch" 10 years ago and he produced the show "The Alaska Experiment."

But when asked this question, he struggled. "I'm a show maker, not a show creator... I take someone's big ideas and try to execute (them). That's what I'm good at," he said. But, ultimately, this is what he told National Geographic: "I think there's this breed of person in Alaska who has these incredible skill sets, and I think it would be really interesting to put them to the test in a non-prize-winning competition." And with that, "Ultimate Survival Alaska" was born.

I met Catalina while he was in Anchorage prepping his production team, safety experts and the cast for season three of the show. They were staying at the Millennium Hotel and seemed to take up the whole place with their massive crew and cast.

Some critics of the show have said it seems staged. Catalina said that while they set up various modes of transportation, the cast chooses what to do with them.

For example, in the season two opener, the teams come upon sled dog teams. "We didn't magically show up and find dog sleds there. We chose that," said Catalina. "And I was really curious to see how the military guys would handle a dog sled. And what blew me away was that they chose not to. They end up in a foot race across a glacier, and I just thought, 'oh no, you guys are going to die.'"

For me, that is the fun of the show.

I wanted to know what someone who was at the start of a Bering Sea crab fishing show 10 years ago thought about the Alaska reality TV industry today.

Catalina said he remembers watching a National Geographic documentary made in the 1970s called "Yukon Passage," about four Alaskan men building a raft and then surviving a winter as they float 1,800 miles down the Yukon River.

The documentary inspired an episode of "Ultimate Survival Alaska," where the cast also constructs a raft to travel down the Yukon. He said he wanted his cast to interact with the hidden Alaska that he had grown to love: the fish camps on the river, the unique characters who live in rural Alaska and the small-town feel of the state.

As he scouted the river before the cast came down on their rafts, Catalina spotted a fish camp. A burly-looking sourdough guy was heading toward him, dragging a log behind his boat with a "what do you want?" attitude.

Catalina explained they were shooting a show for National Geographic and would be sailing past him on their rafts. He thought it would be perfect to have the cast interact with the man's fish camp.

And then the man stopped him: "I've got a deal with Discovery Channel for a show and I'm exclusive to them."

Catalina said he nearly fell out of his boat from the surprise of getting "the Hollywood talk" on the Yukon River in the middle of nowhere. And that is how Alaska has changed since the early days of "Deadliest Catch."

At the end of our interview, Catalina showed me a photo of his 11-year-old son, whom he described as a city boy, learning how to start a fire from Dallas Seavey. And in that moment, I realized who Brian Catalina is. He's a fan of Alaska and the personalities that live here.

• Emily Fehrenbacher lives in Anchorage, where she reviews Alaska reality TV.

 


Emily Fehrenbacher
Reality Check