CommunityPam's House Blend

How low can reality TV go? Don't ask.

How’s this for a premise — feature three fundy Christian families and let them figure out which minority family they find the least repellent to live next to. Film then as they freely exhibit all their bigotry out into the open for Nielsen ratings. Gotcha yet? Must-see-TV for ya! What a barrel of laughs!

A new reality series in which three white, self-described “Christian” families get to pick their new neighbors from among a group of minority families is already drawing fire. And it hasn’t even aired yet.

The show is called “Welcome to the Neighborhood” and it’s coming to ABC July 10.

I will not tolerate a homosexual couple coming into this neighborhood,” one of the neighbors, Jim Stewart, says on the show about one of the candidate families — a gay couple with an adopted baby. “I want a family similar to what we are,” asserts another neighbor, John Bellamy, in a statement that would seem to dismiss at least six out of the seven candidate families.

The diverse group includes African-American, Caucasian, Korean, Latino and gay families, plus one family in which husband and wife are heavily tattooed, and another in which mom and dad are devoted to the practice of Wicca, sometimes known as witchcraft or paganism.

The show’s first two episodes are filled with statements such as those above. Along with the show’s premise, in which neighbors get to choose who will move into a vacant house on their cul-de-sac, the attitude reflected in the judging families’ statements is raising hackles among fair-housing and gay anti-defamation activists — sometimes sight-unseen.

“The show perpetuates the problems of housing discrimination, segregation and racism in America, and it undermines the fair-housing rights of a person’s ability to go buy a house without any approval or judgment from a neighbor,” says Shanna Smith, president of the Washington-based National Fair Housing Alliance. She hasn’t seen the show yet, but is basing her conclusions mainly on reading ABC’s press materials promoting the show. She is already talking about launching an advertiser boycott.

Meanwhile, from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation comes this reaction: “Watching three privileged couples vote to get rid of disenfranchised families they don’t like is really disturbing,” says Damon Romine, Los Angeles-based entertainment media director for GLAAD. Romine watched the first two episodes of the show last week. “Welcome to the Neighborhood” was filmed over a four-week period last winter in a suburban housing development in Austin, Texas.

The winning family gets a four-bedroom, three-bath home, plus furnishings, upgrades and two years’ worth of property taxes paid for them — a prize worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $900,000, estimates two of the show’s executive producers, Jay Blumenfield and Tony Marsh. [Would you want to live next to these bible-beating bigots?]

In an interview last week, they said the show does not violate fair-housing laws, according to what they were told by ABC’s lawyers. “This isn’t like [the judging families] were renting an apartment to somebody or actually the sellers of a home. This is a prize, so in that realm, those discrimination laws and all that stuff are not part of this process,” Marsh said.

According to ABC‘s carefully crafted promo, we are going to be treated to a “learning experience…

But with every encounter with these families, the opinionated neighbors’ pre-conceived assumptions and prejudices are also chipped away, and they learn that, while on the outside we may appear different, deep inside we share many common bonds. The judges find themselves learning to see people, not stereotypes.

I have no doubt that intelligent discussion could be generated by this kind of show, but the people that need to see it won’t tune in, and my initial reaction to reading about this is that I’d find watching the bigotry too almost too painful to take.

If ABC really wants to put forth a substantive effort on addressing prejudice, it would make this more than entertainment. Have a studio audience and a discussion of the show after each episode, with a sociologist or someone qualified to moderate a discussion on this volatile issue, and analyze the reactions and motivations of the principals involved. Assuming the sheeple will come away with a greater understanding of what lies behind prejudice or questioning their own biases is asking a lot.

My guess is that the Korean couple or the tattooed folks get the thumbs up. Any bets?

ABC, Inc.
500 S. Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521-4551
Phone number: (818) 460-7477
Audience Relations Department at netaudr@abc.com

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding