There are innumerable reasons why much of the country is in political revolt against media elites. Exhibit A: Has Viacom, the corporate behemoth that owns both the CBS and UPN television networks, no sense of shame?
First, CBS had to dump its four-hour miniseries on Ronald and Nancy Reagan onto its sister cable network Showtime because CBS president Les Moonves admitted it had gone “too far” in bashing the First Couple. Then it outraged millions by carrying Janet Jackson’s infamous MTV-produced Super Bowl halftime show.
Now UPN has decided to single out the beliefs and practices of a religious group for humor. This summer [starting on July 28] it will air a reality show called Amish in the City, in which five 16-year-old kids are plucked out of their cloistered world and put like “fish out of water” in some big city where they will interact with the outside world and all its temptations.
UPN’s executives claim they “have every intention of treating the Amish and their beliefs and their heritage with the utmost respect and decency.” Right. “That’s as ludicrous a statement as ever passed the pen of a corporate shill,” says Robert Schroeder, a Pennsylvania journalist. He isn’t comforted by the fact that two of the show’s executive producers worked on Devil’s Playground, a 2002 documentary on the Amish that ran on Cinemax. It featured the son of an Amish preacher who becomes addicted to crystal meth and then becomes a dealer to support his habit.
Amish in the City does have some basis in fact. Amish teenagers often go through a rite of passage called “rumspringa” in which they are allowed to date, engage in mostly harmless forms of partying, and test their faith before taking up adult responsibilities. Some 90 percent remain with the church. Nonetheless, TV critics were stunned last January when the show’s concept was unveiled at a press tour in Los Angeles. One asked Moonves why Viacom would allow UPN to manipulate and possibly alter a ceremony that could literally transform the lives of impressionable teenagers.
Moonves enjoyed the question. “Well, we couldn’t do the Beverly Hillbillies,” he quipped. “The Amish don’t have as good a lobbying group.”
The reference was to Moonves’s aborted plans to launch a reality series called “The Real Beverly Hillbillies.” Using so-called “hick hunts,” the network intended to move an uneducated Appalachian family into an opulent West Coast mansion and invite the nation to laugh at their bumbling ways. He finally had to shelve the show after union leaders and 43 members of Congress complained. Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia suggested that, instead, Moonves program a reality show that relocated network executives to “the sticks,” where they would have to find a job. Moonves admitted the “phenomenal” opposition to the show left him “pretty surprised.”
That makes his willingness to plunge ahead with the Amish project all the more surprising. A total of 51 members of Congress, including Senators Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, sent Viacom a letter saying “we find it hard to imagine that anyone would single out five Native American teenagers in a similar fashion, making light of the process of defining their personal and religious identity in a world often at odds with their own culture.”
The Amish are a Christian sect whose 200,000 members are concentrated in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. They stress humility, family, and community, and live separated from the rest of the world. For that reason they don’t use telephones, cars, and electricity.
Their lifestyle intrigued UPN executives into concocting a show in which they would put five Amish teens into a house with five “mainstream” teens. Audiences would watch the teens venture into the “outside” world. Then, in front of millions of viewers, the Amish teens would make the life-determining decision about whether to keep their faith. They say it could be a hit along the lines of The Simple Life, in which society girls Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie lived with an Arkansas farm family for a month.
But the Amish don’t think the idea of treating them like a circus carnival act is very funny. “Where does a giant corporation get off thinking that it’s entertaining to try to tempt young people to leave their religion?” asked Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies.
THIS IS NOT THE FIRST time Les Moonves and Viacom have been exposed as culturally tone-deaf. In 1998, CBS canceled the family-friendly Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, even though it dominated its time slot. Moonves felt its audience was too female and too old. Last year, he admitted that the No. 1 viewer complaint to CBS remains his cancellation of Dr. Quinn. “They want it back,” he says. He dismissed the success of the religious show Touched by an Angel as a “fluke” and presided over an ill-fated effort to bring radio’s raunchy Howard Stern to television. In 2002, he was ridiculed by David Letterman on his own network for a four-day junket to Cuba during which he hobnobbed with Fidel Castro and got the dictator’s autograph on a cigar box.
By comparison with the lifestyle of the jet-setting Moonves, the Amish’s innocence and morality do appear pretty boring. But some of their practices would be a much better model for American families. The Amish worship God in each other’s homes, and care for a disabled neighbor’s crops and health in time of illness. They provide their own food, shelter, and clothing, but collect no welfare.
“You’d have to be an idiot not to hear what is going on in this country,” Moonves said back in 1996. But clearly his mental radio receiver can’t pick up cultural signals in certain regions of America. His missteps have alienated older viewers and made advertisers nervous about what cultural trap he might fall into next. Making sport of the Amish community, where crime rates, abortion rates, divorce rates, and bankruptcy rates are minimal isn’t something most Americans would view as funny. They would view it as progress.