Finding the next Jersey Shore — a ratings and pop culture phenomenon — is about as easy as hitting a vein of gold in the Alaskan frontier. And since Jersey Shore came to an end in 2012, MTV — and countless other cable networks — have been trying to hit pay dirt with another zeitgeist-capturing docu-series, but it's proven to be a daunting task. While there seems to be no shortage of eccentric regional subcultures filled with "larger than life" personalities, none of the Jersey Shore wannabes — from MTV spinoffs like The Show With Vinny to rip-offs like Lifetime's Russian Dolls — have captivated the country like Snooki and The Situation once did.
MTV came close last year with Buckwild, a show set in rural West Virginia featuring a cast of twentysomethings who enjoyed partying, swimming in dump trucks, and going "mudding." The show was a hit for the network, premiering to 1.61 million viewers, but it never made it past the first season for an unexpected — and tragic — reason: Buckwild star Shain Gandee died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning while off-roading with some friends in April of last year. Soon after, MTV canceled the show.
Hoping to get back in business with MTV, the production company behind Buckwild, Zoo Productions, focused its lenses elsewhere: Wasilla, Alaska. So how did they find the town — and the hard-partying, polar-plunging twentysomethings — that ultimately combined to become MTV's latest (possible) heir to the Jersey Shore throne? One step at a time.
1. Pick a state.
It's all about location, location, location — and why not choose one that has worked before? "With Alaska, there have been a ton of really successful shows," says Zoo Productions's John Stevens, citing Gold Rush and Ice Road Truckers. But those series skew to older viewers, so "we said, 'Why don't we do a show for the coming-of-age audience, the younger kids.'"
MTV was very much on board with the idea. "We hadn't felt like the Alaskan world had been represented on our air ever," says Colin Nash, SVP of Series Development at MTV. "And our audience was looking for new and unique places that hadn't been explored for someone in their 20s."
2. Send in the scouts.
As Stevens explained, their process of determining locations for these projects involves sending out a handful of producers across the country and hoping to find the next Snooki. They started out in the bigger cities — Anchorage and Juneau — and fanned out from there. "In this case, we happened upon a group of friends who were primarily based in the Wasilla area," Stevens explains. "Everybody said the fun characters, the really loud characters that you want for a show like this are in Wasilla, which is known as 'The Valley.'"
They liked the more rural, rough-hewn nature of the town. And it didn't hurt that it had one very famous resident — Sarah Palin. "The hotel that we stay at is literally four doors down from Sarah Palin's house, which is hilarious," Stevens says with a laugh. "And they are big characters, that family. They are a handful and a lot of fun to hear and read about. They're known throughout the state, but especially in the Wasilla area."
Once they'd scouted the town, producers asked around for "the most fun person in this town" and "the young mayor that everyone knows." Says Stevens, "That's exactly how we found Kelly and Jackie. Everyone knew Jackie and loved Jackie."
3. Start the interviews.
Once the producers hone in on a few key characters, they test them for their TV-worthiness. Jackie, for instance, "lit up the room" during her talks with producers. "You just know right out of the gate when you see people who should be on TV," Stevens says.
The producers and MTV also wanted a pre-established group of friends — it's "very fun to watch when you see people who have a history," he explains — so they pulled in Kelly's on-again/off-again girlfriend, Sierra, along with other members of their social circle.
But what is it about Jackie — or Snooki — that makes them stand out, though? Nash believes it's their self-confidence (aka #DGAF): "They're unapologetic about who they are and they're not afraid to share it on TV." One thing that sets apart the Slednecks cast even from their Jersey Shore forebears is their toughness. "These kids are all like grown-up Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts," says Stevens. "They know how to build stuff and fix stuff and start fires and trim trees, and that's one of the things we liked about it."
Adds Nash, "We loved that the girls in the cast had a toughness to them, they ride dirt bikes and know how to fix cars and aren't afraid to get their hands dirty." So far, Slednecks isn't the hit that Jersey Shore was — it's not even as big as Buckwild, averaging just under 600,000 viewers. It remains to be seen whether the show will grow and become the pop cultural behemoth that MTV has been hoping for. In the meantime, though, hope springs eternal... which brings us to our next step.
4. Start the whole process over again.
Zoo Productions continues to search for interesting locales: "Nebraska is a place that we're looking at right now that we're really excited about because it has a very Midwestern feel," Stevens says. "For me, it's about a place that no one has done yet." He also likes that the people in Nebraska are, like the cast of Slednecks, "very genuine." "You're watching kids who aren't nasty people. They're good, fun kids who know how to live off the land," he said. "I think that's important messaging for other kids to watch."
Nash adds, "We have feelers out all across the United States."
And they're always looking beyond the Jersey Shore-type docu-series. Nash and company at MTV are constantly thinking of what the next trend in reality television will be. Stevens believes occupational/workplace docu-series will be the next big thing. In Slednecks, they follow some of the cast members to their jobs — for instance, Kelly and Trevor work at the airboat shop, and their grizzled boss, Leonard, is hilarious and meme-able (think Uncle Si from Duck Dynasty). And some of the funniest moments on Jersey Shore came from when the stars were "working" at the Shore Shop.
But whether their next show is set at the beach or in the chilly wilderness or in office cubicles, both Nash and Stevens believe that the most important factor is relatability. "What we've seen from our research is that our audience is always interested in finding new places that they haven't really discovered," Nash says, "and trying to see how other young adults are living their lives."
Slednecks airs Thursdays at 11 p.m. on MTV.