Filming a reality television show in Alaska means dealing with remote locations and difficult logistics, rough weather and even rougher personalities, and competing with a laundry list of other Alaska reality TV shows. The Discovery Channel’s “Bering Sea Gold” -- about modern-day gold rushers sucking the precious metal off the seafloor near Nome -- is no exception.
What makes “Bering Sea Gold” exceptional is its success. It was a popular program at a time when the market was already saturated with myriad other Alaska reality TV shows. And when the second season premiered last Friday, it continued to make a strong statement about the enduring hold that Alaska has on the national imagination, ranking fifth among all cable shows airing on Friday night.
That can’t all be chalked up to chance, though -- the show was created and produced by Thom Beers, the patron saint of Alaska reality TV and former CEO of Original Productions. This is the guy who created the crab-fishing phenomenon “Deadliest Catch,” which established the formula that follows the rough-and-tumble drama of blue-collar, high stakes professions. It has since translated into shows like “Ice Road Truckers,” “Ax Men,” and “Black Gold.”
Beers admitted in an interview with the New York Times Magazine that the success of “Deadliest Catch” helped him conceive that formula.
“There had to be a ticking clock; there had to be teams in competition with one another; and there had to be a primal, omnipresent external threat,” writes Charles Homans.
“Bering Sea Gold” has all three: The prime Nome gold-mining season can be short, especially with weather factored in; there are several crews and dredges operating on the show, and while they’re not directly competing with each other, it’s easy to make it a competition; and manning a huge suction hose in the cold waters off of Nome is dangerous enough in itself.
Beers has since moved on from Original Productions, to become the CEO of Fremantle Productions, and Philip Segal has taken his place as lead man at Original Productions. He’s been with the company for eight years, enough time to see the lengthy success of “Deadliest Catch” and the rise and fall of other shorter-lived or less-successful shows.
Segal acknowledged that there is a formula to producing successful reality TV, but there’s always a degree of variability.
“The formula is always to look at it from the personal perspective,” Segal said. “What are the stakes?” He cited archetypes like the story of David and Goliath, of ordinary people overcoming extraordinary odds, as big draws for audiences.
“Often, we never know where those wonderful nuggets are going to come from until we’re sort of embedded with people,” Segal said.
A unique perspective
As a part of “Deadliest Catch” -- or just “Catch,” as he refers to it -- Segal is in a fairly unique position among Alaska reality mavens. “Deadliest Catch” arrived before Alaska had its film-tax incentive program, and the show has been there for the initial five-year trial run of that program and its subsequent renewal in last year’s legislative session.
Segal said that the Alaska Film Office has been “effective and very friendly,” but also suggested that the company would likely be filming in Alaska with or without the tax credit.
“Alaska is one of those very unique places, and that is simply not something that can be duplicated anywhere else in the world,” Segal said.
With that uniqueness come unique challenges, things like the troubles of getting to Nome with cameras and crews in tow, the importance of meeting state regulations, or simply to understand the show's context. For instance, representatives from Original Productions were present at a gold lease sale in 2011, which Segal said was just to better understand the playing field where the show would be filming, and for informational purposes.
Regardless of whether the show would be filming in the state or not, it hasn’t stopped the company from utilizing the availability of the lucrative tax credit program: the first season of Bering Sea Gold cashed in a credit to the tune of $322,732 in state subsidies while paying only $54,092 in wages to Alaska workers.
Who died on Bering Sea Gold?
There are always concerns that reality shows filmed in Alaska -- and many reality programs in general -- are exploitative in nature.
Such concerns can be elevated when a character from a reality show passes away, especially during the course of filming. That’s something that happened on this second season of “Bering Sea Gold,” and the season two trailer plays up this fact, showing mourners and making it appear that the person died while diving.
The person who passed away was Nome’s John Bunce, a 26-year-old diver who worked on The Edge, a dredge owned by Zeke Tenhoff. Bunce doesn’t figure prominently in the first episode of the second season, and it’s unclear how much of a role he plays in the program going forward. It also isn’t clear at what point in the season his death occurred.
What's clearer is that Bunce apparently didn’t die while diving -- Nome police responded to a reported death at a residence on First Street in the city on Sept. 1, 2012, and the body was that of John Bunce. His body was sent to the state medical examiner’s office for autopsy, which was not permitted to release the results under privacy laws.
Numerous requests for information from the Nome Police Department on Bunce’s cause of death were unsuccessful, though the show made clear in preview materials prior to the season finale that Bunce's death was a suicide. An obituary that ran after Bunce's death said that Bunce was "an honest and solid friend."
This wasn’t the first time an Original Productions show had lost a cast member during filming -- Phil Harris, better known as “Captain Phil” of the vessel Cornelia Marie, died during the seventh season of “Deadliest Catch.”
Segal stressed the importance of handling the situation in a sensitive way, while simultaneously continuing on to the show’s conclusion.
“I would say anytime you have and incident like this, and a tragedy like this, you can’t help but stop and think about the impact that it has on his family and friends,” Segal said.
“Unfortunately, in these real circumstances, it happens,” he added, and said that the show told as much as necessary to be respectful to Bunce’s family. Bunce’s role on “Bering Sea Gold” was smaller than that of Captain Phil, but Segal said there was little difference in how it affected everyone involved with the show.
“They’re all different,” Segal said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a minor role or a major role, they all affect you the same way.”
The end of Alaska reality TV?
Sometimes, the backlash from such shows can be in another form -- after the first season of “Bering Sea Gold” aired, a local mining shop had to put an FAQ on its home page informing hopeful prospectors of the regulations in the state of Alaska. The state Division of Mining, Land and Water was preparing itself for an onslaught of gold-rushers into Nome after the show aired. Fortunately, the distance and cost of getting to and working in Nome as a gold miner apparently deterred many.
Original Productions was also recently working on casting for an elimination-style show working-titled “The Frontiersmen,” which would take place in the remote Alaska wilderness and feature survivalist aspects. Segal said that that show has been put on hold, but that the company was actively looking at Alaska for other projects -- though he couldn’t say specifically what those projects might be.
Will the public remain interested? Well, that remains to be seen. After the strong showing of the first episode -- featuring feisty, grizzled gold miners, a couple of dicey underwater panic attacks, and more swearing than a Martin Scorsese flick -- a third season of “Bering Sea Gold” isn't worth ruling out.
“We’re ready, willing and able,” Segal said.
But is the rest of the world?
This story was updated on March 15, 2013 to reflect John Bunce's cause of death.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com