Rant: If this article is true, everyone’s worst fears about that BBC ‘docu-soap’ are coming true


(This story has been updated with a producer’s response at the end.)

If you live in Svalbard, be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

Not because of any real-life dangers here, but because of the extremely hazardous view the world apparently will be getting about life here starting a month from now. A 10-part BBC “docu-soap” is scheduled to debut Aug. 28 and it appears it may live down to the worst fears of everyone who felt them during the eight months of filming.

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An article published Monday by The Media Online is chilling – and I definitely don’t mean in how it explains the “reality show” is set in “an inhospitable series of islands situated halfway between Norway and the North Pole.” The headline (“Reality bites”) is high ironic comedy, given how BBC Worldwide Executive Producer Kirsty Hanson (the person making the quotes-inside-the-quotes remarks) is either obliviously or intentionally deciding reality isn’t good enough for the show.

The following are excerpts from the article, with my observations in italics.

• “Ice Town: Life on the Edge premieres on BBC Earth, Channel 184, on Sunday 28 August.” Hmmm…they’ve changed the title. Was it because I declared they stole the name of my fishwrapper when it was titled “Ice People” or for some other reason? I was ambivalent about the former title, but while it’s nice to know the show won’t dominate Google to the point my newspaper never appears in searches I think the new title is just dull.

• “The joke in the community is that it is the only place in the world where you can go into a bank wearing a balaclava and carrying a gun and still get service with a smile.” I’ve lived here eight years and never heard that joke.

• “BBC Earth was looking for ideas in that sort of area, extreme living, off the grid.” Except, of course, for the part where we have some of the best internet service in the world and some of the most sophisticated science/satellite facilities providing weather and other data to most of the world.

• “At any point in time, 46 nationalities are represented in Svalbard.” Um, no, it’s not like we have a quota system where replacements arrive as foreigners depart.

• The cast consists of quirky characters including…US journalist Mark Sabbatini, who used to work for the LA Times as a crime correspondent but has now moved to a place with no crime…” This is my biggest personal annoyance since my short stint in LA was the only time I’ve lived in a large city and I hated every minute of it. But despite repeating this over and over (and cussing them out when they asked me to say “I was an L.A. crime reporter” on camera), they’re sticking doggedly to the preconceived script they had long before arriving.

• “…Wiggo, the local taxi driver…” Way to make Longyearbyen sound like a tiny hamlet with just one driver.

• “The cast was chosen to represent a diverse group of people, with different jobs and personalities to try and give something to every viewer. ‘It just felt like TV gold to me. If you had them in a line-up of usual suspects, you would just think… WHAT?'” See the thing about typecasting me above. It appears they’re committed to reducing us all to caricatures in a polar circus.

• “At the one shop in the town, a bottle of milk can be more expensive than whisky.” Pure bullshit. The cheapest liter of whisky costs nearly three times more than the most expensive liter of milk. And, again, this isn’t some tiny farming village from the 1920s – milk comes in cartons, not bottles which would result in massive amounts of extra trash that costs a fortune to ship to the mainland.

• “Two incidents in particular disrupted the schedule. During the break, the worst storm in 30 years hit the region, causing an avalanche that flattened lots of the houses and killed two people. A person from the crew was sent back to cover the aftermath of the disaster, but the deaths rocked the community. The other incident involved a polar bear which wandered too close to the town. An expert marksman tranquilized it, before it was loaded into a helicopter and relocated away from the settlement before it regained consciousness.” THIS IS BY FAR THE ARTICLE’S MOST OUTRAGEOUS STATEMENT. If this show equates a brief bit of afternoon entertainment with one of the most tragic incidents in the town’s history it will insult every resident here and insult the intelligence of everyone who watches the show. I’m also guessing they’ll try to make me the person presenting the bear as “newsworthy” on that type of scale.

• “‘These things are part of the everyday existence and we just wanted to cover things in a very authentic way, because that’s what viewers are looking for. They want real, true, live, authentic series … If something is really heavily formatted for TV, I think we are moving away from that,’ Hanson explains.” The nerve of this statement is beyond belief.

The only ray of hope is the show isn’t the show until it airs. There’s still time to remove the rubbish. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, the people producing the show aren’t the ones who filmed it and got to know Svalbard and the people here as they really are. So the hope  the producers will opt for the truth instead of preconceived scripts seems like a fantasy.


UPDATE: Always the fair (if not always impartial) journalist, an executive with the show e-mailed me this morning and here’s the highlights of “their side of the story.”

• The name was changed for several reasons, including the fact I wasn’t thrilled with it. As I’ve stated before, they said there was no malice involved…indeed, they felt it might help me build my “brand,” so to speak.

• As for the insistence on portraying me as an L.A. crime reporter now living off the grid where there’s no crime: It’s “one of the things that people find most fascinating about you. In much the same way as you write your headlines to draw people into the story we need to give press a headline on each of you to get them interested.”

• As for my biggest complaint about the two filming “disruptions” (the avalanche and the polar bear near town): “We are of course not comparing one story to the other and they appear in completely different episodes.”

• The article I mentioned was the reporter’s writing and not, as I suspected, essentially a press release with a few quotes. “We have no control over their headlines or how the article is written but I would very quickly be able to allay any fears you have about the type of programme you think we are making.”