Reality bites: Television shows filmed in Louisiana capture compelling cultural and historical aspects and turn residents into international stars, but they also affect perceptions about living and conducting business in the state.
Advertisements showcasing Louisiana are seen by millions of viewers on several major cable networks: A&E, ABC, Discovery Channel, History Channel, MTV, Oxygen and TLC.
But these aren’t the kind of commercials that tout the state’s growing high-tech industries, the Creative Capital of the South, any of the research under way at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, extensive public education reforms, and that Louisiana has thrice been named the best place in the South for jobs and investment.
Instead, they portray gator hunters in the swamp, a hoarder with dead cats in her house, a Goth-styled exterminator who chases hogs and possums, seven “bad girls” who live together in a New Orleans house, a Baton Rouge family that cleans everything from sewage spills and rodent infestations to crime scenes and crack houses, and some Baton Rougeans who build the biggest, baddest guns and knives around.
Reality shows filmed in Louisiana are flourishing on the small screen, made possible in part by efforts to lure the entertainment industry through tax credits and other incentives. Such programs have propelled the state onto a new world stage and transformed some of our residents into international stars.
For example, Swamp People has broken viewership records on the History Channel, and Troy Landry’s catchphrase “Choot ’em” is available on T-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, aprons, camouflage beanies and a $2.99 ringtone for your cellphone.
Indeed, some of these reality shows capture compelling aspects of our culture and history that are near and dear to us. But they might also be our worst enemy when it comes to changing perceptions about living and doing business in this state.
Prospective businesses and residents can hear all about the “new Louisiana,” with its emerging high-tech industries, award-winning FastStart workforce training program and high rankings as a place from which to operate, and then go home in the evening, watch Billy the Exterminator—in real life, Benton-based exterminator Billy Bretherton—wrangle skunks and raccoons while dressed in black leather with large silver jewelry, steel studs and spikes, and conclude that Louisiana has not shed its stereotype.
“There’s little question that these programs impact how people perceive Louisiana and how they perceive a typical person from Louisiana, and it’s definitely not all good,” says Kirby Goidel, an associate professor in LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, co-director of the Public Policy Research Lab and the director of the annual Louisiana Survey.
“What makes these programs so interesting is that they show a different side of life—people and circumstances that are really atypical. It’s easy for people from outside Louisiana who haven’t been here and have never met a Louisiana resident to watch a so-called reality show and succumb to the stereotypical view of what Louisiana is like.
“There’s no question that mixed messages are presented when our economic development folks argue to a business executive that this is a serious place committed to attracting better industry, and the same person goes home and turns on Swamp People. That is a problem.”
Reality shows emerged on the Louisiana scene in 2000, when MTV’s Real World landed in New Orleans for its ninth season. Viewers followed the lives of seven diverse housemates who lived in the historic Belfort Mansion on St. Charles Avenue and were assigned to work at a New Orleans public-access television station.
Two years later, lawmakers enacted one of the most generous incentives in the nation to lure the entertainment industry to the state. Louisiana offers a 30% tax credit for investments of at least $300,000 in productions shot in the state. A labor tax credit of 5% is offered, based on the total payroll of Louisiana residents involved in a production.
When the legislation took effect, its supporters had their eye on blockbuster films and scripted television series. No one publicly predicted that Louisiana subsequently would emerge as a hotbed of reality television.
But in the past three years, the state has served as the backdrop for at least a dozen episodes and series, and at least five new reality programs are starting production this year; even former Gov. Edwin Edwards is toying with the idea of starring in one.
“I don’t think it was a main focus of the legislation,” says Andre Champagne, president of Hollywood Trucks and vice president of Louisiana Industry for Film & Entertainment, an advocacy organization. “Obviously, the highest dollar amounts are being spent on major films. All of us in the industry have been surprised by the overwhelming growth of it, but we’ve embraced it.”
Even so, reality shows account for a small percentage of the 300-plus productions that have filmed in the state since the tax credits were introduced. Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret says just $32 million has been spent on reality television productions in the state since 2002, less than 1% of the billions spent on film and other television productions during the same period of time.
The focus of Louisiana Entertainment, he adds, has been expanding economic activity across multiple entertainment sectors, including film and television, sound recording and digital interactive media. But hit programs like Swamp People, Billy the Exterminator and Sons of Guns perhaps give Louisiana more notoriety because the state’s landscape, culture and people play a starring role.
“Most people in the industry have mixed feelings about reality television,” says Patrick Mulhearn, director of studio operations for Raleigh Studios at the Celtic Media Centre and former assistant director of film and television for LED.
“There’s an element of exposure that’s good, and also an element that’s bad. No reality television is true reality. And as production value goes, it’s really on the low end. We’re all better served by scripted series and feature films than we are by reality shows. However, money is money, and some people think there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
So why is Louisiana such an appealing source of subjects for reality television? Industry observers cite three factors that the state has in its favor: tax credits, good weather and interesting characters.
“There is a strong economic incentive to do television and film work in Louisiana,” says Roy Maughan, a Baton Rouge-based entertainment lawyer who represents 15 clients who appear in Louisiana-based reality television shows.
“When people watch these reality shows, they’re investing in a lifestyle. They want to see what these people eat, how they spend their time, what they do. And Louisiana has interesting people.”
Maughan believes that reality television can be considered a growth industry for the state. The genre is immensely popular because such shows tend to have a low budget, but winning ideas can generate a tremendous amount of advertising revenue.
And given that Swamp People, Billy the Exterminator and Sons of Guns have proven successful, we can expect to see more reality production firms scouting the state, looking for a similar winning formula.
MTV has already announced plans to film Caged, a series documenting the lives of 20-somethings in rural Louisiana who delve into mixed martial arts fighting in cages. Filming has already begun on Crawfish Cowboys, following Lake Arthur resident Cody Newman as he harvests crawfish from his ponds and conducts his daily business.
Casting calls were held this spring in Houma for Cajun Croc Hunters, which plans to transport Louisiana alligator hunters to the Philippines to hunt monster crocodiles. And Bayou Billionaire wraps filming in Shreveport at the end of the month.
“We’re going to see a lot more,” Champagne says. “One of the things we know about Louisiana is that its people are its greatest assets. It’s such a unique and individual state. There are areas that are a lot culturally different from the rest of the world, and that’s interesting to watch.”
If there are concerns about how reality shows might impact economic development in Louisiana, those who star in them say it’s been good for their businesses.
The Landrys of Swamp People have started Choot Em Enterprises, which sells autographed photos of Troy, Jacob and Clint for $9.99, hats for $24.99, visors and camouflage beanies for $17.99, decals and koozies for $5.99, and T-shirts that range from $19.99 to $24.99.
Their website, chootem.com, also lists dozens of stores where the merchandise is sold—Cracker Barrel Convenience Stores is the major retailer—along with a schedule of appearances around the country that encourages visitors to arrive early to ensure entry into the event, as lines have been cut off well before the visits are slated to end.
Bruce Mitchell was working at the Kliebert Turtle & Alligator Farm in Hammond when History Channel came calling, looking for subjects to film for a new series on alligator hunting. The company’s website now advertises the farm as “Home of the original swamp people.”
Mitchell now has his own website, brucethealligatorman.com, where visitors can buy merchandise and contact his agent to arrange an appearance. Like his grandfather before him, he’s been gator hunting for three decades. Cameras now follow him and his Zebra Cake-loving dog Tyler every time they go out during the 30-day season. The pay, he says, is “all right.”
Starring in the hit series Swamp People has changed Mitchell’s life: He’s recognized no matter where he goes, and he now makes public appearances. He says his newfound fame “hasn’t sunk in my head yet.”
Xtreme Cleaners President Larry Douglas, who cleans up crime scenes with the cameras rolling on the TLC series Ultimate Cleaners, says reality television provides the kind of advertising for his business that money can’t buy.
The former New England police officer opened a branch of his crime scene and biohazard cleanup company in Prairieville after the construction industry recruited him to Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. In 2009 he made two appearances on reality programs, and in 2010 he signed a series option with Paper Route Productions, an independent production company.
Filming, he says, is far from glamorous. It makes for long days that begin at 6 a.m. and continue until midnight for two weeks at a time. As for the pay, he says, “Nobody is going to get rich off of it. It won’t even send your kids to college. If you figure in the hours, you probably lose money on the deals. But we look at it as an opportunity to advertise our company for 30 minutes a week on national TV, and what’s the value of that?”
Indeed, the appearances have given Xtreme Cleaners name recognition, attracting clients from across the country. Since the series began, the company has opened a branch in Covington and has plans for branches in New Orleans and Michigan.
Douglas, who is part of the show along with his brother Matt, Matt’s son Josh, aunt Becky and friend Patrick, is very protective of his image and that of Louisiana, especially since his work is heavily regulated.
“We want to make sure we portray ourselves and the state in a positive manner,” he says. “These shows do make you cringe sometimes. They bring notoriety, but they can also result in a negative image. We didn’t want stereotypes because we are very professional people.”
Perhaps the best example of what can go horribly wrong to a community’s reputation through reality television is Jersey Shore, an MTV series about Nicole Elizabeth “Snooki” Polizzi and her foul-mouthed 20-something friends, who live in a beach house in Seaside Heights, N.J.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has condemned the show, saying “Snooki and company do not represent real New Jerseyans, the Jersey Shore or New Jersey in any way. They are an embarrassment.”
Think nothing like Jersey Shore will ever happen in Louisiana?
On its website, SSS Entertainment lists as one of its upcoming projects The Wank, a “hilarious reality program [that] follows the party-fueled lives of young guys and girls living on the Westbank of New Orleans, where every weekend is Mardi Gras.”
One online entertainment magazine has already referred to Caged—the new MTV series—as a “redneck Jersey Shore.” Another writer says that he is intrigued by the idea of “hillbilly-on-hillbilly violence.”
One recent Louisiana casting call for a yet-unnamed series sought candidates for “one big crawfish peelin’, poboy-eatin’, bourbon-drinkin’, Dixie-lovin’ bayou summer reality show.” Another called for “sexy and outrageous” Cajun and country women to appear for auditions in cutoffs and a tank top, akin to Daisy Duke.
“We have so many beautiful and good things about our state and our people,” says Christine Corcos, an associate professor of law who also teaches in the Women’s & Gender Studies Program at LSU. “But will these things make it into the episodes or will the episodes show the stereotypes? It seems to me that while people in general are willing to overlook stereotypes about the North, they are less forgiving about the South, and in particular about the Deep South.”
Corcos can’t imagine that reality shows might have any effect on the decisions of CEOs and other high-level managers who make business deals, but their workforce might be another story. Such shows could affect the opinions that a firm’s employees have of Louisiana, which might result in a lack of enthusiasm for moving here and, in turn, ultimately influence the decision.
But Moret insists the state has seen no impact from reality television shows on its business development efforts. He notes that for the past three years, Louisiana has attracted more significant new business development projects per capita than any other state in the South, and the number of people moving into the state has surpassed those leaving.
That said, he admits that when it comes to reality television, he does “look forward to seeing more attention brought to the real Louisiana turnaround story.” But industry insiders suggest the likelihood of a hit show about an average middle manager who works at an impressive high-tech job during the day and comes home to cope with the kids at night is unlikely.
Bracketing that alternative, Mulhearn says interest in reality shows might actually encourage viewers to visit Louisiana and see that there’s more to it than what’s portrayed on the show.
“Even though we don’t want the world to think all of Louisiana catches alligators, if you consider all the interest and intrigue these shows generate, it’s hard to put a price tag on that,” Mulhearn says. “So many things come into play in terms of economic impact, including tourism and general interest in Louisiana, that didn’t exist before the shows went on the air.”
Goidel, however, advocates a more aggressive solution: using the success of programs like Swamp People to advertise a more complete image of Louisiana.
“You have people paying attention to Louisiana who wouldn’t normally do so,” he says. “We have the potential to send a different message, to let people know what we’re really like.”