News-Miner opinion: Reality TV shows set in Alaska have had a checkered history. Legislative tax credits for filmmakers doing business in the state were successful at bringing the industry to Alaska. But the results were considerably more mixed than supporters had hoped. Few feature films were moved by the credit, but reality TV shows found Alaska to be a gold mine, with more than 20 scrambling to bring the Last Frontier to viewers in the Lower 48. But not only have the reality-show portraits of Alaska largely not jibed with residents’ experiences here, the stars have had more than their fair share of trouble with the law. Though the state is still looking for revenue streams and job sources not burdened by the oil downturn, reality TV is starting to look like it brings Alaska more headaches than benefits.
For reality TV, there was a perfect storm of sorts that led to the groundswell in Alaska-based shows. In 2005, the Legislature passed a substantial film tax credit aimed at wooing Hollywood studios to actually shoot their movies set in Alaska within the state rather than in stand-in locations in Washington, Canada and Europe. At the same time, one of the first reality shows in the 49th state, “Deadliest Catch,” attained strong popularity and turned viewers’ eyes northward. With a few exceptions, feature films proved relatively unmotivated to relocate their massive productions even with the tax credits in place. But reality shows had smaller, more nimble production crews that traveled more easily — the equivalent of wildcat oil explorers, if Hollywood’s studios were likened to the Big Three oil producers. They could afford to take a gamble on Alaska, especially when they saw it paying off so handsomely for “Deadliest Catch.”
But subsequent waves of Alaska reality shows proved more inclined to generate their own drama than to rely on what the country could provide naturally. Some of it was outlandish fare, such as “Alaskan Women Looking for Love,” which exploited a host of negative stereotypes about the state to hype the culture shock of six Kodiak women taken to Miami to experience the big-city dating scene. Other shows featured reality stars who didn’t show much respect for the country, as in MTV’s “Slednecks,” or cast its Native people in a negative light, as in “Escaping Alaska.”
The oversimplifications and distortions of reality shows have rubbed many residents the wrong way. But more seriously, stars of the shows have displayed a disturbing tendency to play fast and loose with Alaska’s laws. Several members of the cast of the Sportsman Channel’s “Syndicate Hunting” were sentenced late last year after being charged with multiple federal hunting violations for failing to obtain licenses or permits to take any of the animals killed on the show. Late last week, Theresa Vail, star of the Outdoor Channel’s “Limitless with Theresa Vail,” pleaded guilty to killing two bears in May 2015 with only one tag, a crime that was compounded when her guide flew in a second tag and backdated it in an attempt to disguise the violation.
And in the case likely most offensive to Alaska residents, two members of the family that stars in “Alaskan Bush People” pleaded guilty this week to fraudulently applying for and receiving more than $20,000 in Alaska Permanent Fund dividend checks for the years 2009 to 2012. Billy and Joshua Brown, who attended the hearing telephonically from California, signed statements confirming they left the state in 2009 and did not return until 2012.
It’s one thing for TV shows to ratchet up drama for ratings and distort the realities of life in Alaska to snare viewers. That’s been part of Hollywood depictions of the state since the silent era. But it shouldn’t be too much to ask for those attached to Alaska-based reality shows to abide by state and federal laws. If they can’t meet that bar, Alaskans will be right to ask whether any benefit derived from the shows’ presence is worth the disrespect for the Last Frontier that appears to come with it.