With Alaska, There’s No Business Like Snow Business

WHY THIS MATTERS: A truly unique setting can make a show stand out from the packed TV landscape.

A new season of The Last Alaskans, about the few remaining residents in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, starts up on Discovery on Sunday, Nov. 25, representing yet another show set in our 49th state. The series’ unforgiving terrain, and the hardy characters who brave the elements there, are something of a mainstay on Discovery and other networks.

Viewers don’t seem to tire of Alaska shows. “It’s a place where the challenges people face come through on television so clearly,” Michael Gara, executive producer on The Last Alaskans, said. “The average person is fascinated by it. We don’t know if we could survive there.”

Discovery’s other Alaska holdings include Alaska: The Last Frontier, which began season eight last month; Bering Sea Gold, which has lasted for 10 seasons; Alaskan Bush People, which has been on for eight seasons; and Deadliest Catch, which ran season 14 earlier this year.

Donna D’Alessandro, senior VP of programming at Discovery, said the region’s weather and landscape emerge as much characters as the humans themselves. “You never know what will happen in Alaska,” said D’Alessandro. “It will always feel fresh.”

An ideal Discovery show depicts a world that is “unique and different,” she added. Alaska has that in spades.

Negative Temps, Positive Ratings

Alaska has long served as the setting for popular shows. CBS aired Northern Exposure from 1990 to 1995, about a New York doctor adjusting to life in a remote corner of the state. National Geographic has Life Below Zero, about hunters trying to survive the frigid temps, and HGTV airs Living Alaska, about couples searching for new homes in the state. Ice Road Truckers, about drivers steering trucks across frozen lakes, rivers and ice-covered highways, airs on History.

The new season of Alaska: The Last Frontier started Oct. 7. It shows the Kilcher family as members venture to Adak Island for caribou and build a floating homestead out of an abandoned barge. Singer-songwriter Jewel, part of the family, appears in the series.

Alaska Bush People actually shifted from Alaska to Washington State, which Discovery said was due to health issues for the family at the center of the show.

It will be the fourth season of The Last Alaskans, set in a wildlife refuge along Alaska’s border with Canada’s Yukon Territory. Central to the season are Bob Harte, whose cancer has caused him to leave the refuge and live with family in town, and Tyler and Ashley Selden, who bring their baby girl to the refuge. National Wildlife Refuge residents are dealing with the aftermath of forest fires, which has made the landscape even less hospitable.

“We’re looking at the last of a breed,” D’Alessandro said.

Discovery executives said tax incentives are not a factor in network decisions about shooting in Alaska. “Alaska embodies the spirit of the Discovery ethos,” Discovery VP of production and development Joseph Schneier said. “We love to profile characters that live authentic lives and we’re a network that celebrates the frontier spirit.”

State of the Art

Alaska attained U.S. statehood in January 1959. Months later, Hawaii got statehood as well, becoming the 50th state in the nation. Offering a similarly exotic, if diametrically different, type of weather, Hawaii, too, is a popular locale for TV series. CBS has Hawaii Five-0 and rookie reboot Magnum P.I. Lost was a hit for ABC in the Aughts, and Marvel’s Inhumans aired on the network, too. A&E reality series Dog the Bounty Hunter was also set in Hawaii.

What makes Alaska so alluring to viewers — its unpredictable weather — can be a serious challenge for producers. Gara noted that the crew on The Last Alaskans lives in a similar manner to the cast members. “You can’t fake it,” he said. “There’s no Holiday Inn Express to warm up in at the end of the night.”

Discovery has had premiere dates for various Alaska-set shows pushed back after Mother Nature flexed her considerable muscles. “A bad storm shifts everything,” D’Alessandro said.

Yet its allure is such that Discovery execs are keen to further their relationship with Alaska. “We are looking at other programs,” D’Alessandro said. “Alaska is one of our cores. It’s always on our minds.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.