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'Welcome to the Neighborhood.' (Not.)

ABC cancels new reality show over racial hubbub

By Sean Leahy

   When making a reality show that lets white Christian Republicans choose their new neighbors from a group of minorities, it's best to make sure those white Christian Republicans speak with a bit less candor than those ABC picked for a reality show set to debut in early July.
   Yesterday, ABC yanked its upcoming “Welcome to the Neighborhood” after a flood of protests from civil rights and fair housing groups. The groups worried that the show, which ABC touted as breaking down racial and social boundaries, would instead serve to reinforce them.
   There was also a secondary issue of whether the show violated fair housing laws. 
   The concept was to allow three families living near Austin, Texas, to choose a new neighbor from seven competing families, including a white gay couple with a black child, a Korean family and a Hispanic family.
   The civil rights groups objected to allegedly racist comments made by the Austin families in choosing which competitors to boot.

   The National Fair Housing Alliance, a network of nonprofit housing agencies, contends that the show violated laws prohibiting discrimination along religious or racial lines in real estate.
   In a statement, ABC acknowledges that it may have pushed sensibilities.
  "T
he fact that true change only happens over time made the episodic nature of this series challenging, and given the sensitivity of the subject matter in early episodes we have decided not to air the series at this time." 
   The six-episode show was set to debut July 10 at 9 p.m., with a special original episode of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” at 8 to give it a big lead-in. 
   The Austin families voted off one family each week before awarding the 3,300 square-foot house to the family it thought would fit into the neighborhood best. 
   Problem was, in the first two episodes their reasoning sounded pretty discriminatory. The gay couple was the biggest target, but the families also busted on the Koreans and another white family that happened to practice Wicca.
   The NFHA, which found out about the show last week and was preparing to file for a temporary restraining order, says the show reinforced old stereotypes.
   “These families were clearly making comments and judgments about the number of kids in the Latino household,” Shanna Smith, NFHA’s president and CEO, told Media Life this morning. 
   “It wasn't like an Archie Bunker show here where you get a chance to balance out issues. These people were engaging in blatant discrimination in housing.”

   Charges of bigotry in reality TV are hardly new, dating back to the earliest years of MTV's  “The Real World.” But the protests and the legal questions were apparently more than ABC was willing to deal with.
   The network insisted from the start that by the final episode lessons in tolerance and acceptance had been learned. But considering the tune-out rate for reality TV these days, ABC may have worried that viewers would base their opinions of the show on just one episode. 
   "In terms of structure, if viewers only watched the first episode or two, they could come away with a message that prejudice and discrimination are not that big a deal -- which is the exact opposite of what the producers intended," Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Entertainment Media director Damon Romine said in a statement.  
   "Regardless of how things turn out at the end of the last show, it's dangerous to let intolerance and bigotry go unchallenged for weeks at a time."
   ABC did not rule out airing "Neighborhood" in the future, or perhaps airing it as a much shorter special rather than a series. That's not likely to happen until things have cooled off, however. 


June 30, 2005 © 2005 Media Life


-  Sean Leahy is a Baltimore writer.


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