Northern Overexposure

Erin Sheehy documents the latest extraction-based industry to hit Alaska:

Over the past few years, the number of reality television shows set in Alaska has skyrocketed. In 2012, more than a dozen aired on major cable networks. Most of the programming is of the “man versus nature” variety: shows like Deadliest CatchGold Rush Alaska, and even Ice Road Truckers tend to focus on the strange and dangerous professions of the Last Frontier. But forays into human drama have been made. This past fall the Military Wives series held a casting call in Anchorage, and in 2011, TLC aired the short-lived Big Hair Alaska, a show about Wasilla’s Beehive Beauty Shop, where Sarah Palin used to get her hair done. The film and television industry in Alaska has grown so rapidly that in 2010 the Anchorage Daily News started a blog called “Hollywood Alaska,” which reports on the latest industry news and routinely asks whether the state is getting enough return on this media gold rush.

The Lower 48’s obsession with the Last Frontier isn’t the only cause of the boom. In 2009, the Alaskan government began offering subsidies that allowed producers to recoup up to 44 percent of their spending in the state. The subsidy program—one of the most generous in the country—has been controversial.

Before 2009, shooting an entire feature film or TV series in Alaska tended to be prohibitively expensive. (Northern Exposure, the famous 1990s show about a Jewish doctor from New York who moves to a small town in Alaska, was shot entirely in Washington State.) More filming means more out-of-state film crews spending money on food and lodging, and could potentially be a boon for tourism, but the latest reports from the Alaska Film Office show that only around 15 percent of the total wages paid by these tax-subsidized productions have gone to Alaskans over the past three years. On the 2010 season of Deadliest Catch, Alaskan workers earned less than $20,000, while out-of-state workers took home more than $1.3 million. And although an Alaskan setting is central to the plotline of most of the films and shows that are shot here, some production companies have come under fire for abusing the subsidy. Baby Geniuses 3, a movie about crime-fighting babies and toddlers, paid less than 6 percent of all wages to in-state employees, and its plot brought little attention to “Alaskan issues.”