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Keep the film credits: Alaska reality TV is awful, but it's priceless free advertising

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 3, 2015

Alaska reality TV shows generally reek at depicting the real Alaska, and they are one of the best investments -- if not the best investment -- the state of Alaska has ever made.

Those two fundamental truths cannot be denied.

Reality TV might make Alaskans look like freaks, outlaws, misfits, dunderheads and more, but all of those shows make Alaska itself look like a big, wild and free place anyone living in an city anywhere might want to visit some day.

Night and day, almost every day, the shows bring Alaska into homes across America to remind people that we are here, and that, "Hey, Alaska looks like a strange and scenic place I might want to visit."

And now the state is getting ready to kill the film subsidy that lured TV producers north to make Alaska part of this everyday American consciousness.

Study Sarah and the Soviets

Have we as Alaskans become so collectively stupid we'd risk throwing this away without even talking about it? Have we all missed the one and most important lesson of the Sarah Palin phenomenon?

Your product doesn't sell if people don't know it exists. And it will cease to exist if you don't regularly remind people of what it is. Alaska's product is that big, wild place called Alaska.

We don't have the theme rides of Disneyland or the glamour of Hollywood or the tastes of Napa Valley or the easily accessible grandeur of Yosemite. Those are California products, and it is worth noting California just upped its tourism marketing spending to more than $100 million to keep those and other California products in the public eye.

We don't have $100 million to spend to promote tourism. What we do have is reality TV. The Alaska reality TV message might not be perfect, but the vistas in those shows most certainly are magnificent, and the vistas are what we sell.

As an old guy, it's hard here not to hark back to the Cold War, which some readers might not remember. The Cold War pitted the U.S. against the Soviet Union (now Russia) in a global philosophical competition between capitalism and communism.

The Soviets thought capitalism decadent. They tried to reinforce this idea among the Soviet citizenry with the 1950 film "Rusky Vaprosk." It was intended to paint a portrait of the U.S. as a land of tenements full of abused workers. Soviet viewers, however, looked past the intended message and connected with what their eyes saw.

As the late, great American columnist Drew Pearson wrote at the time, "the film showed the little Westchester bungalow of the downtrodden reporter who was losing his job and his wife because he'd written something good about the Soviet Union. The audience was not interested in what was happening to him, but they were gasping at the electric range and the electric refrigerator in the kitchen" -- modern conveniences largely unavailable to the Soviet masses at the time.

Airtime is expensive

There is a parallel in Alaska reality TV. A lot of people look right past the characters in the shows to see that amazing place that is Alaska. For this, the state seeded the shows with $13 million in tax credits last year. The worth of the free advertising this $13 million bought is unknown, but it might well reach into the hundreds of millions.

National TV in any form is an expensive forum in which to advertise. A single, 60-second commercial during the Super Bowl this year cost $8 million. The Super Bowl has a huge audience, but it's a one-shot deal.

The audience for cable reality shows is a fraction of the Superbowl audience, but the shows runs throughout the year and most of them are on for a half-hour to an hour.

Flip on cable TV today and you might be able to waste a good part of the day watching Alaska shows. DIY Network was running a "Building Alaska" marathon on Sunday with different segments in the series airing pretty much every hour from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. The only break came for "Building Off the Grid: Alaska" at 7 and 10 p.m.

Also up on Sunday were "Buying Alaska" at 11 and 11:30 a.m, and at at noon, 1 p.m., 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., and overnight on Discovery Channel; "Wild Alaska" at 5 a.m. on the BBC; "Ultimate Survival Alaska" at 10 a.m. on the National Geographic Channel; and "Extreme Alaska" at 1 p.m. on the Nat Geo Wild channel.

This not an unusual schedule. On any given day, these shows plus "Alaska State Troopers," "Yukon Men," "Alaska Outdoors," "Coast Guard Alaska," "Railroad Alaska," "Flying Wild Alaska," "Living Alaska," "Alaska: The Last Frontier," "Life Below Zero," "Bering Sea Gold," "Slednecks" and more fill up hours and hours on cable TV.

Some of those shows have been canceled, but live on. One would hope that continues if the state follows through on the plan to kill the subsidy, but one would hope that before that happens the Alaska Legislature or the governor would at least ask someone to try to get an estimate on the value of the advertising these shows provide.

Or maybe just go ask the opinion of three-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champ Dallas Seavey.

Seavey is one of the stars of "Ultimate Survival." I personally wish he wasn't. Ultimate Survival is the most contrived Alaska reality show out there, and when Seavey came through a brutal Bering Sea storm to win the 2013 Iditarod in dramatic fashion only to announce at the finish line that he didn't know he was the winner, it was hard for any intelligent observer to avoid wondering: Reality or acting?

In a perfect world, it would be nice to avoid such thoughts. It would be nice to believe Iditarod champs always tell the truth. But if they don't, so what? Seavey is a businessman, an extremely intelligent and athletically capable one.

The whole Seavey family is full of pretty sharp business people. And they all seem to recognize the value to the Seavey brand of getting the Seavey name out there. For Dallas, "Ultimate Survival" might be better at doing this than winning the Iditarod.

So maybe somebody should go ask Dallas what he thinks about the state killing the film credit. Maybe ask him how many tourists he thinks "Ultimate Survival" helps lure north to Seavey's Ididaride Sled Dog Tours.

Or maybe ask Stan Zuray in Tanana, a Yukon River community with no real economy except for a little commercial fishing which hasn't been particularly good in recent years. Zuray is one of the stars of "Yukon Men." He readily admits some in the community don't much like the show, and he concedes that like most of the Alaska reality shows "Yukon Men" regularly manipulates "reality" in an effort to make life in the 49th state more exciting.

But on balance, this is what he told Alaska Dispatch News about the show back in the fall:

"I'm glad I did agree to do (the show). It has been an opportunity for many townspeople."

Rural Alaska is a place sadly short on economic opportunities. Shouldn't somebody at least talk about that before defunding the film credit? Is there something else happening out there that will provide economic opportunities -- along with all this exposure for the state -- for a smaller investment?

It's hard to believe there is. And never mind that in addition to funding reality TV there are now some indications the film credit was close to growing an a true, made-in-Alaska film industry. Wouldn't that be cool? Wouldn't that make up for Alaskans made to look less than perfect in those reality shows?

I really don't much like Alaska reality TV. I admit that, but I like even less the idea of cutting off my nose to spite my face.

Craig Medred is a reporter and columnist at Alaska Dispatch News.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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