Cold memo to residents of the Lower 48 and Hawaii: Most of those reality shows you’ve seen on TV about Alaska have nothing to do with reality.
But then, as the joke goes, the sad reality is you’d never know the difference, unless you live in Alaska.
From Kodiak to Kenai and other parts of the 49th state, dozens of TV crews have been producing “unscripted” shows that have gained popularity after the premier of “Deadliest Catch” in 2005.
Critics say they understand why the shows have attracted loyal viewers from other states: It’s the boorish behavior and flimflams shown by the actors, bolstered by backwoodsy stereotyping of Alaskans.
But Alaskans say they resent the public humiliation: They are not wild and buffoons as portrayed on TV and they are not locked in desperate struggle to survive. After all, even in Kodiak, home of huge bears, two major supermarkets are within two miles from the city’s downtown area.
“They don’t paint a very accurate depiction of what goes on here. They make it seem like we’re in the middle of nowhere and out in the boonies,” said Nathan Svoboda, Kodiak Area wildlife biologist. “Kodiak has a tremendous amount of knowledge and professionals on the island — biologists, lawyers and doctors and very successful and good-looking people.”
Kodiak resident Troy Jones, 23, agrees.
“I think they make all Alaskans look like we’re living a harsh life and it’s really hard to survive up here, but it’s not,” Jones said. “They don’t show that we have Walmart and Safeway like they do down south.”
“If we don’t kill something we’d die, according to the shows,” Jones said, laughing.
More than half of Alaska’s 730,000 residents live in Anchorage, where it is not unusual to see a moose amid a background of snow-capped mountains. But the city has plenty of restaurants, fast-food chains and supermarkets.
Even in Kodiak, where a homeowner shot dead a 9-foot bear that charged him on his lawn last month, many residents do not hunt or fish.
But watching “Life Below Zero” would make you think the average Alaskan lives in the wild. That show stars Sue Aikens, who supposedly lives “all alone” at the Kavik River Camp. A quick Internet search would reveal that a film crew accompanies her and many visitors drop in to go hunting or fishing. Her camp also provides Wi-Fi connection.
The public humiliation and stereotyping make it hard to promote Alaska as a high-tech state, said Mark Greby, COO of the Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska.
“I’ll tell you all these Alaska shows on TV don’t help a lot,” he said. “They make us look like a bunch of idiots, you know.”
Greby mentioned “Alaskan Bush People,” Discovery’s latest reality show that combines two hugely popular things that viewers in the Lower 48 can’t seem to get enough of nowadays — people in the wilderness and Alaska.
“They have that family and they have them down on the Kenai and they are building this cabin out in the “wilderness.” I’m thinking about somewhere a quarter and a half mile from a pizza place. It is not really wilderness,” he said. “It really doesn’t help when you’re trying to say, ‘You know, we’re an aerospace state.’”
With Alaska facing a multi-billion-dollar revenue shortfall due to plunging oil prices, Alaska’s television image might still be rescued.
Gov. Bill Walker on June 15 signed into law legislation repealing the program that was established in 2008 as a way to lure Hollywood producers to employ Alaskans for a sustainable new industry.
More than $50 million in credits have been paid out since 2009, when the program took off, and an estimated $30 million in preapproved credits are pending that the state has said it is committed to honoring, according to the Associated Press. The program had been scheduled to expire in 2018, and Walker said he didn’t see oil prices rebounding before then.
Among the reality shows that Kodiak men didn’t find flattering were TLC’s “Escaping Alaska,” which raised the ire of Alaska Native groups for its negative portrayal of village life, and “Alaskan Women Looking for Love,” a six-part series that aired on TLC in 2013.
“Alaskan Women Looking for Love” followed "six women from Kodiak" who traveled to Miami, with its first episode showing local men spitting or eating with food falling out of their mouths.
“Honestly, I think they were just doing that to make the women look better because, quite frankly, the women that they used in the show were not, you know,” said 42-year-old Kodiak resident Lawrence Movius. “And in a lot of these shows, the natives that they used are not even natives. They (only) resemble natives.”
Kodiak electrician Dustin Jerome, who was interviewed while buying groceries at Safeway, said the veracity-challenged TV business is about ratings.
“Alaska is a big thing now. To get ratings they have to make up like a bunch of greasy fishermen that live in Kodiak,” Jerome, 24, said. “I think they said all we do is hunt and fish and stuff like that … but most of the men here are hardworking and make good money and are pretty decent guys and nice people.”
“I wish they would come out with a reality show that would really show what it’s like living in Alaska,” he said.
Roni Toldanes, managing editor of Kodiak Daily Mirror, used to watch reality TV shows about Alaska when he was editor of daily newspapers in Southern California, Georgia, New Jersey, Florida, Texas and North Carolina.