The continuing move of the entire Palin family into reality television careers is an amusing downfall story, but it took a serious turn today with the news that the state of Alaska had provided $354,348 in subsidies to Bristol Palin’s most recent venture into the genre, her Lifetime show Bristol Palin: Life’s A Tripp, which had such dreadful ratings it was yanked from its slot after two episodes. It’s one thing for the entertainment industry to effectively subsidize the Palins’ careers, given the relatively limited appeal they have in the aftermath of Sarah Palin’s political career. But it’s another for Alaska to spend money to attract a show to the state that probably would have filmed there anyway.
If the purpose of film and television production credits is to keep jobs in-state or to convince companies that otherwise might not have produced shows in a state to consider filming there, it’s not remotely clear why Bristol Palin: Life’s a Tripp would have been a good candidate for those credits. Alaska is Palin’s childhood home. It’s where her parents continue to live, though Todd Palin’s stint in reality television this fall might mean that the family is gravitating more towards Los Angeles. And it’s where Levi Johnston, the father of Bristol’s child, continues to live. If she was retreating from an attempt at a career in California and reestablishing her life near her support system, Alaska was the most logical place for her to do it, even absent a subsidy program. That the show got tax credits from the state suggests more an eagerness to distribute them to whatever project came along than a real effort to attract new and unexpected business to the state.
It’s true that the show generated some revenue for the state, though it’s hard to tell if it was enough to justify spending those subsidies on this particular program, rather than attempting to attract another show to Alaska, or holding off on spending it at all. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, which broke the story of the tax subsidy, notes that the production reported spending $995,275 in Alaska, though not all of that money went to people who live in Alaska, and about $500,000 of that spending went to on-camera talent for the show. The benefits of the program were not exactly broad, or oriented towards creating a lot of new, long-term Alaska jobs.
I understand why states try to lure away productions from California, and to get some of those jobs for their own citizens. But with almost every state offering some form of incentives, it’s easy for productions to shop for the best deal and to pit those subsidy programs against each other in a way that could minimize the economic benefits the states receive from hosting those productions. And if one of the marks of a viable industry is that it can survive without being subsidized, some states are finding it difficult to get their film programs truly off the ground — after Michigan cut its incentives, a new and expensive studio in Pontiac is finding itself without clients. If states are going to pony up to attract film and television productions, they should be clear about what kind of benefits make the programs worth it for them, or they should consider orienting those credits programs to ends beyond economic ones, like improving the numbers of contracts going to women and minority-owned businesses or projects in the industry. The welfare of Bristol Palin and the future of Alaska’s film and television industry are not one and the same.