by Mike Huckabee, Governor of the State of Arkansas
Never underestimate the creativity of network television when it comes to new ways to violate the standards of common decency. Consider a show in the works at CBS that will transport a family from rural America to a Hollywood mansion for the sole purpose of trading cheap laughs for advertising dollars.
The program will attempt to duplicate the buffoonery of Jed Clampett's fictional family in the original "Beverly Hillbillies" of the 1960s, except this time real people will be placed in the role of the buffoons.
Even in the current fad of "reality" programs, which give viewers the low-brow thrill of watching ordinary people make fools of themselves on candid cameras, this so-called "Real Beverly Hillbillies" crosses the line into sheer mean-spiritedness and prejudice.
Teasing your friends for an eccentric wardrobe or a funny vocabulary is one matter if the joke is shared privately. It's quite another matter to watch your friends, no matter how far their lifestyle is from the mainstream, be publicly degraded on national television.
Wouldn't you get sick to your stomach?
In this case, the entire population of rural Americans, who collectively must struggle against poverty, unemployment and other harsh realities, will be the objects of derision.
In the original show, the Clampetts were an Ozark family who moved to Beverly Hills as millionaires after striking oil on their property. They acted true to stereotype, dressing as rubes and exaggerating their lack of education and formal training. The show was a No. 1 hit for two years.
From all appearances, CBS intends to stick the remade "Real Hillbillies" into the same formulaic version of "reality." A network crew has been searching for a real-life Clampett family of "lower middle class" grandparents, parents and children -- a "hick hunt" as one headline writer puts it -- throughout Arkansas, Missouri, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky.
The point is to set them up in Beverly Hills and make fun of them as they negotiate the upscale world to which the CBS executives belong. The executives break out in grins at the mere thought of the social pratfalls and emotional pitfalls everyone seems to agree are inevitable. "Imagine the episode where they have to interview maids," one executive has been quoted as saying.
This obvious delight in holding up rural folks to public ridicule raises a deeper and more troubling question about the disregard, if not outright contempt, shown by network television toward rural America.
Dee Davis, the president of the Center for Rural Strategies, is disheartened by the apparent lack of understanding network decision makers have for the 20 percent of Americans who continue to live in rural communities. "There are painful and challenging subjects that could be depicted like the early deaths from suicide and disease. Or there are inspiring stories of the people who have triumphed in the face of hardships," Davis says. "Instead, we're treated as if we live in a comic strip."
Davis' group has launched a protest campaign with a series of newspaper ads calling attention to the belittling attitude of the new "Hillbillies" show. "The motive behind a show like this is simple. It's cheap to produce and can be enormously profitable," he says. "The sad fact is that CBS is willing to place all ethical and moral concerns ahead of a quick buck."
The conventional rebuttal from the men and women who reap these windfall dollars is they are providing harmless humor. Of course, that's easier said when you're not the butt of the joke.
Clearly CBS should do the right thing and cancel the "Real Hillbillies" before the show ever airs. However, if CBS is concerned about filling that slot in its prime-time schedule, how about a reality show featuring a different cast -- TV executives who must survive for a year in a rural town using only their wits and manual skills.
Wouldn't that be a hoot?