Published January 23 2012
Morast: Should North Dakota have a reality TV show?
And, naturally, Sara Otte Coleman, the state’s tourism director, responded with various forms of contrite apologies.
That also happens.
But while so many people were focused on the perceived indecencies of the ad, we lost sight of something else Otte Coleman said during ad-gate: North Dakota has been contacted by production companies about creating reality TV shows in the state.
For exposure, of course. And, just to clarify, Otte Coleman says the state wasn’t interested.
But the fact that the realm of reality TV – that controversial medium that has tried to make confessional video an art form and gave import to the Kardashian clan – could set up shop in North Dakota caught the interest of the Forum’s Variety section.
What would a North Dakota reality show be like?
A take on “Ice Road Truckers” with semis driving across Lake Sakakwea’s frozen mass? A series following the flurry of Native American fancy dancing on the powwow circuit? Flood fighting chronicles from Devils Lake to the Red River?
The possibilities are plentiful.
Of course, our state has been the focal point of reality TV cameras before. Last year Planet Green aired “Boomtown,” a series showing how towns in the growing Oil Patch are changing.
And in the ’90s MTV’s “Road Rules” spent an episode putting city kids in a motor home on a cattle drive experience at the Figure Four ranch north of Killdeer.
There have been other instances, but there hasn’t been a true reality show dedicated to the people of our state and the cultures we keep alive.
As much as trying to figure out what that show would be like, we’re curious about what a reality show could mean for North Dakota.
Would it be a boon to the state’s tourism or marketability, like some say has happened in New Jersey courtesy of MTV’s “Jersey Shore”?
Or would it enforce and spread negative stereotypes that further confuse the nation’s already limited understanding of our state, like some say has happened to New Jersey courtesy of “Jersey Shore”?
It’s hard to get answers about this because, frankly, people don’t like talking about reality TV – at least not on the record to a member of the media.
For instance, Jennifer Stringfellow, communications officer for New Jersey’s travel and tourism department, said, “I don’t know how much, to be honest, how much the governor’s office wants (us) to comment on it.”
That’s because Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, has been a vocal opponent of “Jersey Shore” and its propensity to display Jersey as a state full of Italian-American stereotypes who party till they puke, then work out, tan and party some more.
Still, at least Stringfellow called us back. Alaska’s Travel Industry Association didn’t.
It’s too bad because, like North Dakota, Alaska is an under-populated, mineral-heavy state full of folksy people who live through cold winters. But, unlike North Dakota, Alaska has several reality shows – from “Gold Rush” to Sarah Palin’s reality show – exposing it to the world.
Without Alaska’s tourism officials commenting, we don’t know if reality TV shows have impacted the tourism or prestige of a state that’s only slightly more understood than North Dakota.
We also don’t know if production companies are interested in North Dakota subject matter because they don’t want to talk about reality TV either.
Calls to a couple of reality TV production companies (Pilgrim Studios and Pie Town Productions) resulted in operators dropping responses soaked in the kind of incredulous tone you’d hear if you telephoned KFC’s corporate office and demanded the recipe for its fried chicken: “We don’t talk about our productions, and we don’t have anyone here who would want to talk to you.”
What we do know is that North Dakota’s tourism office has taken calls from people pitching reality shows.
“Usually it’s the networks who are … trying to peak our interest,” Otte Coleman says, saying she couldn’t give any specifics.
Still, North Dakota has pitched some premises for episodes of current reality shows – but only situations that would reflect well on the state, of course.
“CMT had a show called ‘Cowboy U’; they would go to ranches around the country and put urbanites on horseback for a competition thing,” Otte Coleman says. “ ‘Cake Boss,’ we’ve pitched them a couple times. We tried to get them to make a cake for the 75th anniversary of the state Capitol.”
Pitching episodes is safer because, as Otte Coleman says, and as the recent ad kerfuffle underscored, “Everyone has their opinions about how the state should be represented.”
And everyone has their own opinions about reality TV.
“I really kind of dislike reality TV,” says Jen Sondag, an account manager at H2M, an ad agency in Fargo.
Sondag’s sentiment is part of a familiar chorus concerning the TV genre. Her next response is also common; despite disliking reality TV, she admits to watching the Kardashians’ reality show.
“You hate it, but you can’t stop watching,” Sondag says.
Ultimately, that slanted perspective is what scares her about a potential North Dakota-centric reality show, and its effect on the state.
“I feel like there are so many negative associations with North Dakotans to start with, I guess I’m not really optimistic (a reality show) would highlight the really good things in North Dakota.”
Ellen Shafer, owner of Shafer Public Relations in Fargo, is also skeptical about reality TV having a positive impact for the state. But she understands why there’s interest in bringing camera crews to the Peace Garden State.
“Everyone is looking at North Dakota as a land of opportunity,” she says. “The interest is there as a social experiment, if you will. What’s going to happen? How do we react to it?”
If the recent uproar over the tourism ad proved anything, probably not too well.
Readers can reach Forum Variety Editor Robert Morast at (701) 241-5518