By Zaz Hollander
Alaska Dispatch News 

Discovery goes off-grid in search of next reality show

 

January 5, 2017 | View PDF



Amberlee Mucha came to Alaska in early December in search of the state’s next reality television show.

The 33-year-old Discovery Studios casting producer landed in Anchorage Dec. 3 and headed out on an itinerary that included the small but colorful Kuskokwim River hub of McGrath and the Bering Sea village of Shishmaref, which is relocating to escape coastal erosion, as well as more accessible destinations like the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center at Portage.

Mucha helps develop shows for all the Discovery networks, including the Discovery Channel but also the Science Channel, Animal Planet and TLC.

Alaska’s combination of vast wild spaces, colorful characters and mythical status in the Lower 48 has spawned at least 60 shows set in the state since the cheap-to-make, hugely popular reality genre started flooding the airwaves with theoretically real people more than a decade ago.

But with TV consumers cutting cable and switching to streaming sites like Netflix, Mucha and others say pitching Alaska shows to increasingly choosy networks isn’t so easy any more.

“The demand for content out there in general is a lot higher,” Mucha said. “It has to be a lot better than maybe a few years back. I think there’s a demand for authenticity.”

So she came north seeking new, true stories in a state suffering from reality fatigue.

Reality’s bite

Alaska has a love-hate relationship with the dozens of shows that sometimes make a bearded, frontier caricature of life in the 49th state.

Shows like “Alaskan Bush People” drum up huge ratings but outrage some Alaskans with over-the-top portrayals of characters trying to live an allegedly remote life 30 minutes from a pizza parlor and inaccurate depictions of nearby communities.

Some of the Brown family featured on that show now have criminal records here: Patriarch Billy Brown, then 63, and his 33-year-old son, Joshua “Bam Bam” Brown, were each sentenced to 30 days in jail last June for lying about their residency on Permanent Fund dividend applications.

Another show, “Edge of Alaska,” portrayed McCarthy in a way that drew fire from locals for its exaggerated depiction, reviving the old mining town’s dark history and outlaw reputation.

Higher standards?

It’s hard to gauge the true impact — for better or worse — of reality TV in Alaska.

Jobs on shows and the money the shows spend in a community are certainly a gain, as is the tourism- and seafood-promoting spotlight on Alaska’s snow-capped mountains and deep-blue fjords.

But there isn’t any way to quantify the money the industry has brought the state, said Britteny Cioni-Haywood, director of the state’s Division of Economic Development and a member of the state tourism marketing board.

Even members of the tourism industry have concerns about portrayals of Alaskans in some shows, Cioni-Haywood said.

“Everyone agrees that the showing of the scenery is amazing and does great things for tourism marketing but the rest of it is truly a mixed bag,” she said.

It’s possible a new breed of reality show could depict the state in a better light — but that’s not guaranteed.

Alaska and its bigger-than-life reputation is still a major attraction for networks, said Erin Roberts, who develops shows for networks as a senior vice president of development for Hoff Productions in Los Angeles.

Roberts, who created “Wild West Alaska” and is looking for new ideas here, said pitching shows today requires a shift to better stories with authenticity, more “Making a Murderer” and less “Duck Dynasty.”

“You’re looking at these sort of scripted reality comedies and they’re going away,” she said.

Will that make for better shows?

“Not necessarily. I’m sorry,” Roberts said. “People’s perceptions of Alaska is what they’re still going to want to portray … I can’t say you’re going to see just normal people and not necessarily cartoonish people, no.”

Reality comes to town

Nome has played host to a show about Norton Sound dredge miners, “Bering Sea Gold,” since it began airing in 2012.

The show gets mixed reviews in town.

Richard Beneville, Nome’s mayor and a longtime tour company operator, rated the city’s overall experience as “OK. Good, in fact.”

The influx of workers housed at a camp and a large crew of at least 25 people all pay sales tax, buy fuel and bring revenue to local businesses, Beneville said. Clients come to him looking for show-related tours.

Then again, viewers see a lot of rough behavior, fighting and drinking among the miners on the show, the mayor said. Not much attention gets paid to Nome’s role as a hub for 17 Seward Peninsula communities, a “big village” with a population more than 50 percent Alaska Native. 

“It has not worked out as badly as it may have,” Beneville said. “There is a reality to having a reality show done in your town.”

Sue Steinacher, who directs the city’s emergency shelter team, said she shudders to think of the “one-dimensional, contrived view” of Nome transferred to a place like Shishmaref.

“They will focus on honey buckets. They will focus on the dump. It will be completely out of context,” Steinacher said. “It’ll just take the oddities and use those to sort of portray the whole character of a community, which is insulting and inaccurate.”

Some Alaskans say they’ve been courted by producers for years.

Ace Grylls

Carri Thurman, co-owner at Two Sisters Bakery in Homer, met with maybe six production teams in the past three years as the eclectic “drinking town with a fishing problem” found fame in “Alaska: The Last Frontier” about singer Jewel Kilcher’s family.

“Some of the first people that contacted us? Oh my God, so funny,” Thurman recalled. “They really wanted a show that was ‘Ace of Cakes’ meets ‘Bear Grylls’.”

Thurman put on a fake reality-TV narrator voice: “’You’ve got the most fan-TAS-tic cake being delivered by climber and dog sled to a remote location.’”

She switched back to her normal voice.

“We’re like … no,” she said.

Neelie Lythgoe, a founder of Investigation of Paranormal in Alaska, said some Lower 48 reality producers “twist stories and information, have hired actors and flown them to Alaska (to) ‘play’ us for reality shows and use our information, without compensation.”

Once, a crew stood her on a box and told her to get all excited about a UFO that wasn’t there. Another producer wanted to fly her to a remote Southeast beach in search of Kushtaka, the mythical Tlingit “land otter man” said to steal people away, especially children.

Lythgoe said no way. Instead, she suggested putting a baby doll on the beach and letting the bears have at it.

“It never ends up looking good for us,” she said of reality shows and Alaska. “We look like a bunch of backwoods hillbillies. If they could find somebody still living in an igloo, they would promote that.”

‘Vast’ potential

Before her visit, Mucha put out feelers on several Facebook groups around the state, including Fairbanks, Northwest Alaska and Willow: “I am looking for unique people and families, businesses, off-grid communities, paranormal teams etc.”

In an interview a few days before she left for Alaska, she called the trip only a scouting mission, a search for “interesting people, interesting families, interesting worlds I haven’t heard of or seen before.”

Mucha was headed to some communities that have yet to experience the reality boom. She picked her destinations to find as-yet-untapped reality potential based on months of research and a gut-level fascination.

She says she’s seeking out big characters, people good on camera, in uniquely Alaska situations and mostly in places you can’t drive to.

Shishmaref’s decision to move as a village, for one, intrigued Mucha in her pre-trip research, though that doesn’t mean the story of an Arctic community at “the forefront of global warming” on a barrier island beset by rising oceans will necessarily someday get air time.

Mucha, who grew up in Michigan and traveled extensively before ending up in L.A., says she doesn’t expect everyone to embrace her mission.

But, she said, “the bar is a lot higher” today for new shows.

“They still want Alaska shows, but they’ve got to be really, really important stories to tell and really unique stories to tell,” Mucha said. “I’m sure they’re out there. It’s such a vast state.”

 

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