Reality TV - Alaska Department of Corrections

Reality TV
Producers are interested in working with you.
Should your department be interested in
working with them?
Alaska is a REALLY
INTERESTING location for
producers of Reality
Television programs.
In 1976, science fiction writer Kate Wilhelm wrote
a short story titled: Ladies and Gentlemen, This is
Your Crisis.
The story was about a television show in which
contestants attempt to make their way to a
checkpoint after being dropped off in the Alaskan
wilderness, while being filmed and broadcast
around the clock through an entire weekend.
32 years later Reality TV is a .
. . . reality.
North Pole,
“Move that
Deadliest Catch, in the Bering Sea …
Near Tok, the finish line for The Amazing Race 1.
However, this season’s Bear Feeding
Frenzy doesn’t go over quite as well.
Bear attack video raises some hackles
By CRAIG MEDRED / Anchorage Daily News
ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Put a TV soap star in a plastic box in the bear pen at
the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, tie a dummy alongside, turn loose the
bears, roll video and what do you get?
A whole lotta controversy.
A storm of it has been building since a program called "Bear Feeding Frenzy"
first appeared on the Discovery Channel.
State wildlife biologists call the self-proclaimed "documentary" misleading and
worse. The bear authority who worked with the filmmakers says he got
snookered. And some average citizens - taken in by the show's appearance of
having been filmed in the wild - are outraged that television producers would be
teaching grizzlies to attack lifelike dummies, tear into tents and break into SUVs.
Reality TV is "the liveliest genre on
the set right now. It has engaged hotbutton cultural issues—class, sex, race—
that respectable television... rarely
-- VH1 executive vice president Michael Hirchorn.
Reality TV shows come in many
categories. A few include:
Professional Activities.
Special Living Environment
Special living environment
Instant celebrity
Hidden camera
Reality TV or Documentary?
Documentaries present actual incidents and statements
which can be tested against reality. They offer a
representation of reality and use narrative techniques more
often associated with fictional forms.
Reality television presents purportedly unscripted dramatic
or humorous situations, documents actual events, and usually
features ordinary people instead of professional actors.
Documentaries and nonfiction programming such as news
and sports are usually not classified as reality shows.
The Alaska
Department of Corrections:
Our Experience with
Reality TV
Lessons Learned
DOC chose to participate
because we anticipate:
Positive media for our institutions and
corrections professionals.
A way to open the inside of facilities to the
public, recognizing the department works for
the public.
Interest in Alaska among potential visitors
A potential to boost recruitment.
The Department has worked
with three production
companies to date.
Our experience has been
largely positive.
The Department has worked
‘Lockup’ on MSNBC (44blue) filmed at Spring
Creek Correctional Center in Seward.
‘Inside’ on Court TV (44blue), also filmed at
Spring Creek
‘Lockdown’ on National Geographic (Wide Eyed
Productions) at Yukon-Kuskokwim Correctional
Center in Bethel.
‘Hard Time’ on Discovery (Towers Productions)
also at Spring Creek.
Alaska Bush
premiered on
Sunday, Jan. 11.
The department
is viewing the
program as a
success. Along
with DOC, State
Troopers and
VPSOs were
“Our prisons director once said he
supported anything that showed the public and
our state legislators what it's really like inside
our prisons for staff and inmates - because so
much of the public's perception is based on
what they see in pop culture.
“We've not always been completely
happy with every one of these reality programs
and how they depicted us, but if they portray
most things accurately then we generally
consider them a success.”
-- Keith Acree, Public Affairs Director, NC Dept. of Correction
“South Dakota is approached to do these shows
frequently, but we've never approved a request
to do so.
“The main reason is the commitment of staff
time. Being a small state and small prison
system, we don't have staff that can spend the
entire duration of one of the shoots with the
camera crew. I've seen a lot of proposals and
don't remember a single one that was less than
ten days of shooting.”
Michael Winder, South Dakota Department of Corrections,
Communications and Information Manager
Reality TV production
companies are
frequent callers.
DOC chose not to
work with:
The Steve
Wilkos Show.
The producers wanted Steve and the
mother of a murdered infant to confront
the inmate convicted of the crime, now
housed at our contract facility in Arizona.
We said before any decision was made
the producers must have written
permission from the inmate.
There was no follow-up.
The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Producers wanted to place a Sociology
Professor in a DOC prison posing as an
inmate and film his interactions over a set time
period. The department declined.
We were also contacted by:
A British production company which began its
conversation with: ‘We’re a production company
based in London. Do you have any serial killers
we can talk to?’ The answer was ‘No.’
Langley Productions: “You’ve seen ’em do the
crime, now see ’em get the time. From John
Langley, producer of the groundbreaking Cops
…” The show is Jail. We agreed to any of our
facilities but Spring Creek, but they wanted a
max facility, so no agreement was made.
Optimum Productions wanted to
contact Manfried West, an lifesentence inmate at Spring Creek
convicted of killing Joe Vogler. The
purpose of their show, for the
Discovery Channel, was too vague.
And, I get a number of calls from
producers anxious to arrange an
interview with inmate Robert Hansen,
the infamous ‘butcher baker.’
“Arkansas was the first state to have its entire
prison system declared unconstitutional and the
only one to have "Brubaker" draped all over it
and to be labeled in court as a "dark and evil
world." If I let one of those shows in, I could
count on at least a 15 minute rehash of the sins
of the past. And there probably wouldn't be a
single second spent on our full accreditation or
the Golden Eagle Award or any of the gazillion
other ways we are miles away from what we
used to be.”
Dina Tyler, Arkansas Department of Corrections
“In my view all they end up doing is perpetuate
stereotypes about the scary, dangerous, world of
corrections, and all of this is done for purposes of
entertainment. A television crew who comes in for
those purposes has absolutely no commitment to
you, your prison or your agency and will present
whatever their view of world happens to be to sell
the program to A and E or whomever. I would much
rather spend my time with the local media. In my
view we are obligated to the citizens/taxpayers of
our states and not the television viewers of
Brian A. Garnett, Director of External Affairs,
Connecticut Department of Correction
What happens when you
decide to go forward. Your
job as a PIO:
Step 1. Arrange a meeting (teleconference is fine)
between the commissioner and the head of the
production company. Make sure everyone is on the
same page – particularly when it comes to access
and who has on-site authority.
Step 2. Set a schedule. Start date, how long, how
many in the crew (usually 4).
Step 3: Make sure everyone at the film
site is on board. It will be important to
identify a liaison … staff who will escort
the film crew and who has on the spot
decision making ability.
My experience: crews are professional
and respect limits. They will ask for
exceptions … sometimes it makes sense
to agree, other times it will not.
‘Lockup’ at
Center. The
company is
The film crew interviews Spring Creek Superintendent
Turnbull in the control room.
The crew
follows a
officer as he
checks on a
At the
Lessons learned:
Some Reality TV ‘fatigue’ set in at Spring
Creek after two shows were filmed in two
On-duty time must be dedicated for staff
to accompany film crews.
The field producer will ‘push’ a little. Be
prepared to compromise or say ‘no.’
Check with ethics supervisor before you
let the film crew buy you lunch.
Victim notification: This must be
addressed. In one show filmed at Spring
Creek, a child-killer was interviewed and
bragged about how well he was doing.
The program aired just before Christmas,
and it didn’t go well with the victim’s
family. We consider who film crews can
interview with this in mind.
Crews are generally conscientious and
sensitive to your requests. That said, you
do not have editorial control over the
final product.
“We allowed a group of comedians access
to one of our facilities this past fall. They
were there for about a week, interviewing
offenders and staff, taping skits and
auditioning offenders for a talent show. This
culminated in four one hour shows at the
facility, which in my judgment, were wildly
successful. The group is currently
marketing this effort to HBO, Showtime, etc.
for development as a reality-type show.”
Douglas S. Garrison
Chief Communications Officer
Office of the Commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction
In conclusion:
With proper planning and oversight, reality
TV can be a positive and effective way to get
your department’s message to a wide public
audience. There are pitfalls – mainly because
you have no control over the final product.
Good advance planning, open
communication and strong oversight will be
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