Is reality TV tarnishing Louisiana’s image?

A recent trip to Turkey reminded me just how much our country’s image depends on the movies and TV shows we export.

Louisiana state welcome sign Panneau de Bienve...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Traveling by ferry out of Istanbul last month, I sat next to a young man -– a well-educated engineer — whose eyes lit up when he learned I was American. He hadn’t heard of Louisiana, but he knew all about Texas.

Thanks to American movies and TV shows, this man had an image of Texas as a place overrun with horses and outlaws. That, of course, isn’t the sum total of Texas, but it was for this man, whose only exposure to the state was through the images he had seen on television.

That got me thinking about the image that people around the country have of Louisiana and its people, by virtue of how we promote ourselves and by the many movies and television shows that are routinely filmed here.

The official image is produced by the Louisiana Department of Tourism, which pays millions for TV commercials featuring lovely images of bayous, jambalaya, and Cajun fiddlers.

But there are other images of Louisiana and its people projected by a half-dozen cable reality shows, the most popular of which is the History Channel’s “Swamp People.”

Sons of Guns

Sons of Guns (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are others, including CMT’s “Bayou Billionaires,” A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” and “Billy the Exterminator,” and the Discovery Channel’s “Sons of Guns.” And then there’s a prison show on Animal Planet, set at Angola, called “Louisiana Lockdown.”

Too often, on some (but not all) of these shows, Louisiana citizens are portrayed as a bunch of gun-toting, toothless, tattooed swamp people who wrestle or kill alligators or eat squirrel brains for breakfast while celebrating our famously crooked politicians.

Speaking of politicians, there may soon be a show starring ex-con and former Governor Edwin Edwards and his wife, Trina.

Why all these shows? State officials say it’s partly because we’re an interesting place with year-round mild weather. But it’s also because the state awards a generous tax break to companies that make movies or TV shows here.

The official in charge of the tax credits for Louisiana Economic Development has said that less than 10 percent of the film credits have gone to the producers of these reality shows over the life of the tax credit. That may not sound like much, but last year that would be about $23 million.

[Today, after this post went up, LED officials did some recalculations. Chris Stelly, executive director of Louisiana Entertainment for Louisiana Economic Development, tells me in an email: “We had a chance to do some further research on this issue and we estimate that since 2002 (inception of the motion picture incentive program), reality productions have spent around $36 million directly in the state of Louisiana. Overall, since 2002, we estimate around $3 billion in direct, in-state expenditures for all film and TV productions. Accordingly, about 1% of the total film/TV production activity in Louisiana from 2002 through the present has been due to reality programming.”]

Costly or not, Louisiana is subsidizing these reality shows. And I believe they have a big impact on our reputation.

If you doubt me, consider this: How has the show “Jersey Shore” influenced your perception of the Garden State?

Governor of New Jersey at a town hall in Hills...

Gov. Chris Christie of NJ

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says it’s been harmful – so harmful that last year he cancelled more than four hundred thousand dollars in tax credits for the show.

As Gov. Bobby Jindal and state lawmakers study the return on investment of hundreds of tax credits and exemptions – a process currently underway -– they ought to give special scrutiny to Louisiana’s film tax credit.

Here’s a suggestion for them: Just as the Pentagon’s Film Liaison Office approves scripts before giving filmmakers access to military facilities, perhaps Louisiana should vet the programs we support with our tax dollars.

State government certainly shouldn’t prevent TV producers from working in the state. But we shouldn’t routinely give away millions in tax credits to producers of so-called “reality” programs that merely distort or tarnish our image.

When it comes to the tax credit for shows that make us look silly or stupid, I say, “Choot ‘em!”

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6 Responses to Is reality TV tarnishing Louisiana’s image?

  1. SL says:

    In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s before reality TV, the internet and hundreds of TV channels, just about everyone I met from Texas asked me if I had alligators in my back yard. Reality shows can’t be blamed for that.

    I haven’t watched many of the shows you mention, but Troy Landry on Swamp People comes across as a genuinely good person, albeit one whose job and lifestyle is very different from yours. Phil on Duck Dynasty is from my hometown, and although he looks and dresses nothing like most policy wonks, and probably doesn’t share your opinions on many topics, he is no dummy, and is one of the nicest people you will ever meet.

    So it seems like you are saying that Louisiana is poorly portrayed on television because the people portrayed on the shows are nothing like yourself. I’m trying to imagine your counterpart in San Francisco complaining that cultural references tend to make people think San Francisco is full of drug addled hippies and gay people cavorting naked in the streets. Such a complaint would likely be met with a great deal of righteous indignation by… well, the gay people and hippies. Intolerance works both ways.

    Whether or not the State’s film tax incentive makes any sense or not is a separate issue. Since the State runs it there’s a good chance it doesn’t. It is difficult to understand because of the convoluted way in which it’s discussed. When someone says the State is spending money on x, it’s hard to discern whether they mean the State is literally giving money directly to x, or whether x represents hypothetical potential income the State is not taking in, e.g. the case of salary of the plumber down the street – am I simply not making that money or am I “spending” it? Could I theoretically manipulate the situation so that I receive some of his salary? If so, then by the standards in which such things are currently discussed, I really can’t afford to keep spending money on that plumber’s salary.

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  2. Peter says:

    I’m an LSU alumni originally from Kenya and I’ll agree that American TV does shape people’s perception. A lot of foreigners who have never been to America, summarise America this way; New York, Miami, Texas and California. Everything else might as well not exist. And this was evident the day I told a couple of my friends that I was going to study in Louisiana. They all asked with a huge gasp,”The south?” Imagine that stereotype still holds true in a country thousands of miles away. Obviously my perception has changed after eating gumbo and some shrimp – Fattening and greasy but good food.

    When it comes to reality shows, I think it’s a double edged sword. It does enhance the image but also re-enforces stereotypes. In a way, I feel like the directors are feeding into people’s feelings by providing a show that re-affirms held beliefs. Very few people want to watch kids(ReThinkers) in New Orleans taking on their school districts to change the diet in public schools. That doesn’t make good TV. Reality TV makes better TV.

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  3. I just got back from Louisiana (LA). I live out of state. Visiting Louisiana helped me understand the people of LA better. It was thanks to shows like Swamp People and Cajun Justice that peaked my curiosity about all things Louisianian. Just like I saw on the reality TV show of Swamp People, the people in LA were so kind, and so hard working. My family left feeling like part of their families. We miss them.

    I was shocked to see first hand the aftermath of miles of Katrina’s devastation 7 years later. It is unfathomable, but true the loss of everything to so many. In my opinion, LA can use all the tourist dollars available. Open businesses means jobs. Jobs feed families. If tax cuts entice reality TV shows to come film in LA, then let them. Yes, we did frequent the high brow places besides the swamp lands and left our tourist dollars there too.

    For my family, we think Louisianians are the salt of the earth. I thank shows like Swamp People and Cajun Justice for sharing with us their lives across the cable lines. We will be back to visit. Louisiana’s legacy will go on for my family and others since my MaggieMooseTracks’ children’s book series will feature some of Louisiana’s special flavor. Thanks again for rolling out the welcome mat.

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  4. Gene Sands says:

    Bob – you’re on target with your comments about how the Pentagon handles requests for support to make a movie, television show, etc. And, the basic rule is: no support to anyone whose product casts a negative light on the military. I think Louisiana would be wise to adopt the same policy. Otherwise, we’re spending tax dollars to support our state and tax dollars to support companies that present negative information about our state.

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  5. Bob–I totally agree with you. I just had this same conversation with my wife about how these Lousianaa-Cajun-based shows are destroying the perception people around the country have about the state. I am from Philadelphia and moved here in 2008 with my wife who is originally from Louisiana. My family and friends up back home are always joking about I had better watch out for alligators in my backyard…although we don’t live near the coast or any waterways.

    Yes, the state film office should first read the script or treatments for shows, and make sure they are not depicting the whole state in a NEGATIVE way…trust me from experience, these shows are definitely shaping perceptions about Louisiana its poeple….it needs to stop…..

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  6. SL says:

    RE: Gene and Chuck: What you are suggesting is a great idea if you would rather see a new show about how we live in a state full of people so backwards they never heard of the first amendment.

    A simpler solution would be to have the state not pay money to film companies, and let them go do business in some other state if that is why they are here – assuming Bob is correct, and the state is actually giving them money (not just a discounted tax rate). Of course that leaves us sounding kind of dumb come election time when we will again feel led to demand that our elected officials “create jobs” even though we were ideologically opposed to them exercising what little ability they had to do so.

    I’m not really ashamed of living in a state with the kind of people depicted in the shows mentioned. It does kind of make me sad to be living among people who wish the government had more power to restrict freedom and regulate diversity so that people would be compelled by force to think and act alike.

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