stink over CBS
hillbilly reality series
Rural activists: Don't you dare pick on our folk
By Heidi Vogt
You can’t make fun of anyone anymore.
Almost every ethnic group or lifestyle choice is no longer an acceptable target of cocktail party jokes. But in the mind of CBS there seems to be one notable exception – rural Americans.
The network has been scouring the country since September for a family to star in an upcoming reality show, tentatively titled “The Real Beverly Hillbillies,” in which a rural family lives in a Beverly Hills mansion for one year and the cameras catch their adjustment to luxurious Southern California living.
It's a real-life update of the classic sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies," in which Jed, Granny and the rest struck oil and moved west. CBS describes the show as a “fish-out-of-water” story along the lines of “Pretty Woman” and “Crocodile Dundee.”
But some rural activist groups call “The Real Beverly Hillbillies” the most offensive idea for a reality show yet.
“They’re actually looking for a poor family that does not have high education attainment and hasn’t traveled. They’re looking for a stereotypical family to humiliate,” says Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies.
So Davis is fighting back.
Today the Center for Rural Strategies launched a $75,000 ad campaign to drum up a movement to kill the program before it airs.
“CBS CEO Les Moonves may fly over rural America in his corporate jet, but that doesn’t give him the right to look down on the hardworking people who live there,” says an ad running today in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Davis says the ad campaign will next run in major regional papers nationwide.
“We can’t control what CBS does ultimately,” says Davis,” but we want to show them that there’s a lot of anger. You’ve got school kids here [in Kentucky] writing letters asking CBS not to run the show.”
CBS officials declined to comment, but in a statement released in September the network said it was looking for large families that live in a rural area that have never experienced big city living.
The family should be “proud of their heritage, have a strong point of view and a strong family relationship with a great sense of humor” reads the statement.
Where does one find genuine hillbillies?
The network has held casting calls in Kentucky, West Virginia, Missouri, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. While gun-toting grannies may be in short supply, plenty of potential families have auditioned, attracted by the promise of a six-figure compensation at the end of the show.
“Is there a way that they can take a family and make them a joke for the nation in good taste? I can’t imagine that,” says Davis. “They’re going to laugh at these people or make them objects of pity.
“What if you had a newly immigrated family in the barrio in L.A.? What if they suggested to put them in a mansion and survey them with 24 hour cameras – people would immediately say that that’s offensive.”
Tolerance.org, the activist web site attached to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has already joined up, posting arguments against the show on the web site.
“The whole point of the show is to take poor rural Americans and stick them in a Beverly Hills mansion and laugh at them,” says Jennifer Holladay, director of Tolerance.org. “That humor is not based in tolerance or responsibility for people.”
This uproar over the “Hillbillies” casting recalls some of the outrage over the original reality TV family, the Louds, who let cameras follow them around in 1973's “An American Family” – the first-ever reality show. Many then criticized the show for its intrusiveness into a family’s life.
Davis says part of the reason CBS is so willing to alienate rural Americans is that they don’t live in major television markets.
“They’re taking a family that’s poor and therefore powerless by television standards. They’re not consumers. They’re rural, which means [CBS] can portray them as ‘someone else’ to all their viewers.”
But the anti-"Hillbillies" campaign could still well backfire on its initiators.
"The key to any new show is to have controversy before it begins," says Dr. William Hawes, professor of communications at the University of Houston. "A lot of times stuff like this is generated through publicists."
Hawes says that the newspaper ads are likely to increase interest in the show rather than diminish it, and that CBS is unlikely to bend to the pressure to keep "Hillbillies" off the air.
"People protest virtually everything today. If they can draw 13 million people to watch, they won't care about a protest group."
January 7, 2003© 2002 Media Life
-Heidi Vogt is a staff writer for Media Life.